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"tour de force of the author" [CARD]

[Editor's note: after legal proceedings delayed our intended podcast interview with Mr. Cullin, we commissioned contributor Derrick Belanger to conduct an interview via email. The following represents the unvarnished commentary of the author and his experience.]

Mitch Cullin did not set out to be known as the author of a controversial Sherlock Holmes novel.  In fact, the New Mexico native doesn't even consider himself a Sherlockian, and he'd rather be meditating than reading anything Holmes-related.  Yet, with the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. lawsuit against the film Mr. Holmes and Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind, the novel on which the film is based, Mitch Cullin has emerged, like Leslie Klinger, as a Holmesian hero, fighting to protect the rights of pastiche authors and trying to keep Sherlock Holmes free.  After a strongly worded post on his Facebook page explaining the lawsuit settlement and his reasons against it, I contacted Mr. Cullin to ask him about the lawsuit, the film Mr. Holmes, and his current venture into photography.

I Hear of Sherock Everywhere:  Let's start with the settlement of the lawsuit the Conan Doyle Estate brought against A Slight Trick of the Mind and the film Mr. Holmes.

Mitch Cullin: First off, I want to be clear on who we're talking about when we say the Conan Doyle Estate, particularly in terms of the U.S. and the Estate's business model for almost the past twenty years, what Neil Gaiman called a "shakedown operation." When the lawsuit by the Estate against the film and my book was announced last May — in somewhat uber-nerdy fashion on the occasion of Sir Arthur's 156th birthday — I immediately wondered who was behind the lawsuit. In other words, I found myself asking, "Who exactly is the Conan Doyle Estate in this day and age?"

Most people have no idea about what individuals loiter under the veil of the Estate, and I was no different. Knowing Conan Doyle has no living direct heirs, I assumed there must be some very distant Miss Havisham-like relative wandering about a country house in Scotland who was behind the lawsuit. But that idea turned out to be rather far from the truth. In fact, the remaining rights are owned by Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., a UK company, not individuals. The closest living heirs of Arthur Conan Doyle are Charles Foley, Richard Doyle, and Catherine Doyle Beggs, and Georgina Doyle, widow of Brigadier John Doyle, whose father Innes was Sir Arthur’s younger brother.

However, the Estate "client" that is referred to in the lawsuit's claims against me is a fellow named Jon Lellenberg, a former defense strategist who is now retired and enjoying life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the city where I happen to have been born. Of course, once I learned this, I immediately Googled Mr. Lellenberg to attach a face to the name. It was a disappointment, actually, because I was expecting to glimpse an imposing foe with a steely-eyed glint and a walrus mustache. That was hardly the case. And as it happens, in spite of the fact that his Goodreads page lists him as being from the United Kingdom, Mr. Lellenberg is an American from Missouri. It turns out, too, that many Sherlockians are aware of him as the U.S. representative for the Estate, as well as the editor and author of several decent books that pertain to Conan Doyle. So when talking about the lawsuit and who was responsible for it, I'm really talking about only one person, and that is Jon Lellenberg.

A couple more important things to mention for context. Lellenberg had been the exclusive U.S. representative for Dame Jean Conan Doyle for years. After her death, the Conan Doyle Estate was incorporated into the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd.. The CDE then took its business model cues in terms of copyright and trademark from the Disney Corporation, which had successfully lobbied Congress to extend copyright laws into what became known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998 — yep, that Sonny Bono — or, unofficially, as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. There are a few good aspects of the Bono Act, but the bad part was that it brought back into copyright protection things that had lapsed, such as the The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. For those stories, the copyright period is now 95 years after publication. Thus, the last of the Case-Book stories won't relapse into the public domain until 2022.

This extension in U.S. copyright laws then set the stage for how the the Estate has gone forward ever since. It's a business model that, in my opinion, seems to epitomize the neoconservative fixation with prizing unbridled corporate interests over reasoned free-market fairness, not to mention a disposition of low tolerance for diplomacy of any kind. Lastly, and not without significance, it must be pointed out that Jon Lellenberg isn't just the U.S. representative for the CDE, but, in fact, he owns a certain percentage of the Estate.

[Editor's note: let's just let that last sentence sink in, shall we? Given what we know about the methods of the CDE, "these are very deep waters," as Holmes said.]

IHOSE: What was the basis of the lawsuit?

MC: The basis of the lawsuit by the CDE against me, my publisher, the film company, and director Bill Condon claimed that my novel was loaded with copyright violations from at least one of the copyrighted Holmes stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and the CDE also asserted that there was a trademark violation for the usage of "Sherlock Holmes" since, it was claimed, they owned the trademark where it pertained to both film and books.

That assertion, by the way, is flat-out untrue. The CDE has a trademark pending in that regard, but they don't currently own one, nor have they ever owned one. There's quite a good chance the trademark will be denied, as it should be. If the trademark is granted, then things will become very interesting, because the CDE will be able to metaphorically own the copyright to the name "Sherlock Holmes" for perpetuity. In theory, that would mean an individual would be free to make a film version of the public domain Conan Doyle Holmes stories — let's say The Hound of the Baskervilles — but that person would have to pay the CDE a licensing fee for the use of the trademarked name of "Sherlock Holmes".

IHOSE: Why did your publisher settle?

MC: I'm legally bound to say nothing in regard to the specifics of the final agreement, so I can't speak to what the settlement entails. I can, however, talk about everything that led up to the final agreement. On face value, it would appear that my publisher caved to the CDE's demands. In reality, that was far from the case, regardless of how "very pleased" with the outcome the CDE's lawyer has stated to the press; that's just spin, that's what he's paid to say.

In spite of whatever is right or wrong, the blunt reality is that it is cheaper for corporations to settle than to go to court, and I believe the CDE is not only keenly aware of that reality, but that they bank on it as an outcome. [Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit Court believed the CDE was keenly aware as well. - Ed.] The lawsuit was never intended or designed by the CDE to be litigated. For that matter, contrary to what the CDE has suggested, the film was never kept by them from having a U.S. release. In order for that to have occurred, an injunction against the film would have had to be filed well in advance of the film's release, which didn't happen because the Estate surely knew it wouldn't have received an injunction. The negotiations between the CDE and Random House and I went on for almost three months, but the majority of those negotiations between the Estate and Random House were non-starters and often rather childish.

IHOSE: With some of the Sherlock Holmes stories still under copyright in the U.S. did you or your publisher ever worry about copyright infringement when you wrote A Slight Trick of the Mind? Did the estate ever question you or your publisher before the film Mr. Holmes was announced?

MC: No, not all; neither my publisher nor I was worried, especially since 99.9% of the book had nothing to do with the specifics of the Conan Doyle canon, and those moments that did pertain to the stories were minor, with only three actual references that could be tied to the U.S. copyrighted stories — though those three references are all textbook examples of fair use.

In other words, no readers are buying my book instead of a copyrighted Holmes story so they can find out that Watson moved to Queen Anne Street, nor did anything about my novel harm the sales or prospects of those copyrighted works — quite the opposite, probably. But then again, if public domain certainties have been ignored over and over by the CDE then why on earth would perfectly obvious examples of fair use be respected when doing so wouldn't benefit the CDE financially in any manner whatsoever? And as for the film, it doesn't even have any of those fair use references in it, so the lawsuit was truly without merit in terms of the movie.

More to the point, the novel was written between 2000 and 2003, and it wasn't published until 2005, in which it received favorable reviews in the New York Times and other major publications, yet no one — not me or my publisher — heard as much as a peep from the CDE until the equivalent of a decade later when the film was announced; that fact alone should speak volumes. [Emphasis ours. -Ed.]

For that matter, both Laurie R. King and Michael Chabon, two writers I know, have written about Holmes in the same manner, with the same settings and references as I did in my book — with much greater success, I might add — but neither of them to date have heard from the CDE or been asked to pay bogus licensing fees. But let's see what happens in the future when either The Final Solution or The Beekeeper's Apprentice gets turned into a movie.

IHOSE: Tell us about the book you mentioned on your Facebook Page that you are working on chronicling the business methods used by the CDE.

MC: If you don’t mind, I’m going to stay mum about that one for the time being. It’s in the works, and there’s a lot of research underway. It’ll take a good while to pull it all together, and, most likely, I’ll have to wait until one or two people depart this planet before I’ll get it out into the world. I will say, though, that the idea for the book began to take shape when the lawsuit came about, and when I was feverishly taking notes and trying to educate myself about the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. in anticipation of going to court--so there was a lot of immersive research involved during a relatively short period of time. I now have the basic framework for the book, so the next phase will be extensive research, interviews, and fact checking.

IHOSE:  Now that the dust has settled from the lawsuit, do you have any interest in writing a new Sherlock Holmes story? If so, would it involve a continuation of A Slight Trick of the Mind?

MC: No, no desire whatsoever. What else could I do with the character, aside from having him decompose in a rocking chair? I've been asked for years to write a sequel, and I was even offered a decent amount of money to do so at one time. But A Slight Trick of the Mind had a very organic creation, so anything else would be disingenuous on my part. The novel was my way of dealing with my father's health issues as his sharp mind started to unravel. It's a literary novel, really, and a highly metaphorical yet personal one at that, touching on my own grappling with the definitive ending of my childhood.

It's also a book about lost father figures, and a tribute to the late John Bennett Shaw who had been another great benign father figure to me as a boy. I was saying goodbye to a lot of things and a lot of people with that book, and that was the function it served for me. In fact, my mother died shortly before the book was published, so she became tied into the theme of vanishing loved ones that is at the core of the novel. Now I have no wish to revisit that part of my past, and I'm happy I'll never have to write that book again. Plus, the only preoccupation that holds my creative interest anymore is photography, both as an art form and a hobby; that's what sustains me as an artist and poet nowadays.

IHOSE: You have been bluntly clear that you are not a Sherlockian. In fact, you've said you're not really a fan of the canon, yet you've crafted what some people consider to be the greatest pastiche of the 21st century. Why did you settle on Holmes for your protagonist? Why didn't you invent your own character for the novel or even use a different fictional character as the focus of your novel?

MC: My novel is a work of literary fiction that uses Sherlock Holmes as a device to explore other subjects that exist far beyond anything Conan Doyle could have conceived or written about, such as post-war Japan, atomic technology, the modern age of the mid-20th century. I wasn’t writing a genre mystery pastiche based on the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but rather a layered story with the underlying themes of memory loss, sons in search of lost fathers, and longing for lost loves and lost opportunities.

Mitch Cullin at a Mr. Holmes screening. Image credit: KCET.org

One of the things that the CDEL asserted in their claims against me was that “there will be no difficulty proving Cullin’s access to Conan Doyle’s works, as Cullin’s dedication to the late John Bennett Shaw of Santa Fe, one of this country’s most noted Sherlockians, notes that Shaw once left him in charge of his library.” Guilty as charged. I was 13 at the time, around the age of young Roger in my book. And, just like Roger did with Holmes in my novel, I got to explore John’s library while he and his wife went on vacation.

I was a latchkey kid who lived with his single father in Santa Fe. By the time I turned 14, though, punk music and teenage male hormones moved my interests elsewhere. Many years later, when I learned that John had died, I began toying with the idea of writing a Sherlock book in his honor. At around the same time, my father began to exhibit signs of memory loss, something that was very difficult for me to deal with since my father was my hero and had always had such a sharp mind. Suddenly my childhood began to feel very far away from me, so I decided to incorporate what my father was going through into the book as its major theme: memory, and what happens to an individual when memory starts to go.

The book took three years to write, and in that time my mother developed the ovarian cancer that would eventually kill her. And while she and my father had been divorced for years, they were both still quite close. What I then saw, as my mother’s illness progressed, was my father’s deepening regret for choices he had made in his life as a younger man. All of this I dealt with metaphorically through the novel. Elderly Holmes’s memory loss, his regrets and desire to love, the woman he once desired as a younger man and who suddenly died before he could make sense of his complicated feelings for her, and his affection for the very small boy he found himself spending time with alone: all of this came from my personal life, not from the ghost-mind of the CDE's beloved Conan Doyle. Furthermore, the mentorship that my elderly Holmes provides for the boy Roger is based on the dynamic I had with the late John Bennett Shaw.

In a relatively short period of time, I had lost — and I was losing — my childhood father figures, and therefore I dealt with it through my writing, hence the theme of men in search of fathers that occurs throughout the book. Let’s not also forget that, for me, the character of Sherlock Holmes was also a childhood hero and father figure to me, hence my desire to use him as the main protagonist.

IHOSE: When conducting research for A Slight Trick of the Mind, which Holmes stories were most important in influencing your writing? What other sources were significant influences on your novel?

MC: The outside influences were way more important to the writing of book than anything from Conan Doyle's pen, aside from those stories that pertained to Canonically important details that I felt should be there in order for the story itself to ring true for serious Sherlockians, not just the casual fan. For that, I relied much on William S. Baring-Gould's book and things like Jack Tracy's The Encyclopedia Sherlockiana, as well as revisiting H.F. Heard's wonderful amazing Mycroft mysteries. Apparently, this is a problem when it comes to the U.S. copyright issue because if you want to be canonically accurate with tiny details that are important then you run the chance of being sued.

But, anyway, aside from research about post-war Japan, the main sources of influence during the creation of the novel were writers that I was reading at the time, such as Graham Swift and Kenzaburo Oe. I was also very much inspired by Hikaru Okuizumi's beautiful short novel The Stones Cry Out, a writer who I'd throw my arms around in gratitude should I ever chance to meet him.

IHOSE: It has been noted that the film Mr. Holmes made some significant changes from the book A Slight Trick of the Mind. Some changes seemed odd such as renaming the last name of important characters from Keller to Kelmot, and of course, the big change involved the boy, Roger. What did you think of the changes made to your book when it was transferred to the screen?

MC: I'm philosophical about the changes. The book is the book, the film is the film, and my job was done over a decade ago. To say a film is "loosely based on a novel" should go without saying. All film adaptions of novels are loosely based, which is an understandable by-product of the narrative compression that occurs when moving a story from one medium to an entirely different one. But I've been aware of the changes that were to come for years now, and I believe the second draft of the script already had the big change for Roger.

Then, of course, there are things in the film that I've kicked myself for not having thought of for the book, such as that great meta moment where Holmes goes to watch the film version of himself at a cinema. It kills me that I didn't think of that idea, which Bill Condon gets full credit for envisioning; I remember him telling me about the idea during a dinner together, and I thought to myself, "Damn you, that's good."

You know, though, I never got around to asking why Keller became Kelmot. Maybe because it evoked Helen Keller? I don't know. But I'm very proud of the film, especially how it maintained the heart, soul, and integrity of my novel while still providing a more upbeat conclusion than my version. In truth, the positive outcome that the film provides is closer now to how I feel about life, as opposed to the rather dark, pessimistic place I was in when the novel was written.

IHOSE: One of the most famous books about Holmes is Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street by William S. Baring-Gould. In the book, Baring-Gould surmises that Holmes was taught meditation in Tibet during the Great Hiatus and possibly converted to Buddhism. We see Holmes using meditation to help deal with the deaths of his friends and family members in your novel. Did you come to a similar conclusion as Mr. Baring-Gould about Holmes when you wrote A Slight Trick of the Mind? Do you believe he converted to Buddhism later in life?

MC: To be honest, if anyone wanted to sue me for copyright infringement it should be the Baring-Gould Estate. When writing A Slight Trick of the Mind I used that book as my Holmes bible, not any of the Conan Doyle stories. It was Baring-Gould's timeline that I followed. I even gave a shout out to Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street in the acknowledgments of the novel. It's such a wonderful book. When Ian McKellen was readying to play Holmes for the film, I recommended the Baring-Gould one to him. I'm glad you mentioned Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street since it's my favorite Holmes book, and one of the few that has remained on my bookshelves over the years.

Anyway, why not, I like that idea of Holmes being a Buddhist. Probably because I'm a Buddhist, and I've been practicing meditation daily for a long time now. On the other hand, though, I think my version of Holmes is less Buddhist and more transcendentalist in his beliefs, like my father was. So, in the world of my novel, I don't think Holmes would convert to Buddhism later in life, but in the alternate reality of Baring-Gould's vision I choose to believe he did. My Holmes would probably balk at anything that had even a remote religious component to it. Of course, someone can still meditate successfully and be an atheist; the two things aren't incompatible at all.

IHOSE: You've strayed from writing and are now delving into photography. Why the shift? When will we see your photographic work?

MC: It is true that my creative success has been mostly as a novelist, something that I must admit doesn’t come natural to me. Writing novels is damn hard work, and, honestly, not much fun. But my first and enduring creative love has always been photography, a pursuit that has always given me great pleasure and freedom. I started taking photographs in 1985 when I was 16. My father gave me 35mm Minolta as a gift, and it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of shooting images of my friends and the environment of the small ranching town in West Texas where I was living.

Jump to 2009 when I found myself feeling a bit lost, somewhat adrift as a person and as an artist. My mother had died a few years earlier, and my father was now sinking into his final days of dementia. I had finished a novel that no one was interested in publishing, but even before that, I had grown tired of the isolation, strain, and mental gymnastics that writing novels required; it was still challenging to write, though no longer fun or psychologically pleasing on any level. As a result of reaching this personal crossroad, I decided to take some time off and do what I hadn’t done in years, which was to get a normal job and ponder what to do next.

My Mother as Angela Davis © Mitch Cullin (used with permission)

By 2010, while working in a pretty miserable retail environment at a museum bookstore, I began taking pictures on my days off with a little Canon digital camera as way to keep myself feeling creatively engaged. The following year I quit the job, having come to the realization that the one thing I really wanted to do was the one thing I’d always been a natural at doing: making images with a camera.

By the time I officially announced my retirement from fiction writing this past summer, I had already amassed hundreds of new images, and I had begun diving into the thousands of old negatives from the previous years that I’d kept hidden away in shoe boxes. So next year, fingers crossed, should see the publication of at least two limited-edition photobooks from me--one about my recent travels through Turkey, another showcasing my photographs from West Texas taken during the 1980s, both containing my images and a personal essay from me.

IHOSE:  Any last thoughts?

MC: If I can go back to the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. for a last moment, it's no news flash to suggest that there's something undermining and unkind in nature about how the current Estate behaves toward a variety of writers and editors, though the sad fact is that knowing this can cast a big chill over a person's desire to create anything new or original about Sherlock Holmes, lest she or he end up being threatened with legal action should their work find a publisher. Believe me, if I had known there was the possibility that I was going to be sued, I'd have likely reconsidered writing A Slight Trick of the Mind in the first place.

Even so, it must be remembered that these Holmes books by others are the lifeblood of the Sherlockian world; these novels, pastiches, anthologies, movies, television shows — these are the things that draw the majority of people back to the original canon in the first place — as well as introduce thousands of people to the character of Sherlock Holmes, and it has been that way since at least the middle of the previous century. I would argue that it's because of these outside works that Holmes has remained such a vibrant, modern character. The CDE should be grateful for that, and they should honor those who aid Conan Doyle's legacy and do so without seeking unwarranted monetary reward; they should be respectful of the people who have kept the character alive all these years later. Without us, they'd have nothing.

See also: related article from the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Mitch Cullin is the author of eight books of fiction, including the novel-in-verse Branches, The Cosmology of Bing, Undersurface, and the globe-spanning story collection From the Place in the Valley Deep in the Forest. To date, his books have been translated into 14 languages.

A Slight Trick of the Mind, his revisionist account of an elderly Sherlock Holmes in retirement, is currently in pre-production with Focus Features. The film adaptation of his novel Tideland was directed and co-scripted by former Monty Pythoner Terry Gilliam, produced by Jeremy Thomas, and starred Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer, and Jennifer Tilly. Besides slowly loosing his hair and writing novels in increasingly smaller and expensive dwellings throughout southwestern America, he continues to collaborate in all things with his long-term partner Peter I. Chang.

With Chang as director/editor, he produced I Want to Destroy America, a documentary about the street musician Hisao Shinagawa that premiered at the 2006 Atlanta Underground Film Festival and went on to have multiple screenings at the 2006 Santa Fe Film Festival. In 2009, a second Chang-Cullin documentary feature, Tokyo Is Dreaming, had its premiere at the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival in the U.K., and features a soundtrack by Calexico's John Convertino.

He continues to write novels in decreasing spurts and increasing sputters, but usually he can be found ambling around his garden in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County.

Image source: YouTube