As A.J. Low, Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez have written three delightful Sherlock Sam books, a series published by Singapore publisher Epigram Books that features "Singapore's greatest kid detective" and his robot-helper, Watson. Jimenez, aka "Comicman," is an American expat born and raised in California to Mexican immigrant parents and a freelance writer, editor and teacher. Low-Jimenez, his wife, is a native Singaporean; her day job is division manager, merchandising division, at the amazing Books Kinokuniya in Singapore.
How did the series start?
Our publisher, Epigram Books, had an idea for children's book series starring a chubby boy detective named Sherlock Sam in Singapore. They invited a few writers to pitch their series proposals, and they liked ours best! We were super happy to be chosen because we both grew up reading mysteries, like Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Encyclopedia Brown, Secret Seven and others, and we're both enormous fans of Sherlock Holmes himself, including the most recent incarnations by Robert Downey, Jr., Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Once we were chosen, we could not stop creating characters and coming up with plots. It was really hard not to throw everything into that first book. We don't know about other authors, but we felt that this might be our one and only shot, so everything had to go in. Ultimately, we stepped back and told ourselves to stop being ridiculous, and just write a story that we would want to read when were 10 years old. We decided Sherlock Sam would be a fantastic learner like his namesake, and that his vice would be food, which was an easy thing to do since Singapore is full of fantastic food. We also made him a huge geek just because we were geeks too.
How would you describe the aim of the series?
The main aim is to tell a good story, plain and simple. We want people to enjoy it and maybe learn something new about Singapore and its cultures. A secondary aim was to show our local audiences that kid detectives can exist here, too. They don't always have to rely on the Famous Fives and Nancy Drews of the Western world (as good as they are) to get their mystery fixes. And it's pretty great to see the faces of the kids when they realize some of the books take place in their neighborhoods!
How did Watson, Sherlock Sam's robot sidekick, develop?
Watson originally didn't exist! In the first draft of the first book, Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong, Sherlock Sam's sister, Wendy, played the role of Watson. When we sent it to our editor, however, she suggested we add more gadgets--everything from iPads and Galaxies to X-ray glasses and laser pens--into the story since kids today love gadgets. However, we felt if we did so, Sherlock Sam would be able to solve the mystery too quickly, but we also knew our editor was right. We needed something. Then Felicia said, "I've always wanted to write about a robot." Everything coalesced around that. The robot would take the place of all these gadgets because a robot is the ultimate gadget. To get around the "solving mysteries too easily" problem, we made sure the robot wasn't that powerful. We also gave it the personality of a grumpy old man, so even when he got to be pretty powerful (he receives a new power in every book), he would still be reticent to help Sherlock Sam solve mysteries. All he needed was a name, and as you can read in the first book, Watson wasn't named such because his partner went by Sherlock.
It's very surprising and gratifying for us that a character who wasn't supposed to exist has become almost every reader's favorite!
What kind of reaction has the series been getting in Singapore and elsewhere?
It's been pretty good. We've very surprised how many people seem to really enjoy our stories, both kids and adults. We've been invited regularly to give school talks in Singapore, which is where we get to interact with kids the most, and they always seem excited to see us. We were also recently invited to attend both the Asian Festival of Children's Content here in Singapore, and the inaugural Little Lit Festival in Manila, Philippines, where we had tons of fun and met a lot of awesome people. And, we'll be doing some activities at the Singapore Writer's Festival at the end of this year.
The books are currently available at local bookstores in Singapore (of course), Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Dubai and even the Books Kinokuniya in New York City! They're also available online for those places whose local bookstores don't yet carry them.
Tell us about your school visits and bookstore events.
We've been doing about two school visits a month. Usually we hold assembly talks, where we talk to almost the whole school and do a presentation about the basics of story writing. Occasionally, we are asked to do a writing workshop for the upper primary classes (the equivalent of grades 4-6 in the U.S.), where we go into more detail and teach advanced techniques. Adan teaches at the creative writing school Monsters Under the Bed, so the writing workshops have become almost second nature to him. Felicia's a bookseller/buyer so she's a bit more nervous because she's used to dealing with books rather than people, but she's still quite awesome at it.
We want to single out the International Community School, and especially Mrs. Chi's fourth grade class. This was the first school that we went to, more to do research than anything else. We did a little presentation for the kids, and they were so excited to meet us that they asked for our autographs, even though our first book had not been published yet! They were super great, and many of those children, along with Mrs. Chi herself, make guest appearances in the third book, Sherlock Sam and the Sinister Letters in Bras Basah.
So far, we have had only three bookstore events. Our first event was at Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that was organized by our friend Daphne Lee, who writes for the Star, a Malaysian newspaper, and edits for Scholastic Books. It was attended by about eight people, only two of which were kids, but it was a fun discussion-style event where we talked about the rigors of writing and how to set mysteries in local settings.
Since then, we've had two more bookstore events in Singapore. The second event, timed for the release of the second book, Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning, was held at Books Kinokuniya's main store on Orchard Road. We were worried that no one would show up, and up until five minutes before the event was scheduled to start, there was nobody there. Then, suddenly, lots and lots of people showed up, and we had a fantastic event! Our third event was at the new Books Kinokuniya branch in the west of Singapore, celebrating the release of the third book and the opening of the store. We debuted a couple of new games and contests there, and the kids seemed to enjoy them, especially when they won a LEGO Watson!
How many Sherlock Sam books are you doing and at what frequency?
We'll be writing at least eight Sherlock Sam books, but if the series continues to be this popular, then we would definitely like to continue. We will continue as long as we have new mysteries to tell, and as along as Epigram Books wants to publish them.
The frequency has actually changed a bit. Originally, we were going to do a new book every two months, which we did for the first three books. But we quickly realized that pace would likely kill us as we both have full time jobs, so we decided to slow down to a book every three months. However, we've recently realized the schedules of the many wonderful people who work on this book have gone a bit haywire because of summer holidays, so the fourth book, Sherlock Sam and the Alien Encounter in Pulau Ubin, will likely be delayed until October or November. Our schedule after that should normalize, and we'll put out four books next year at the interval of every three months.
How do you two write? Do you do story ideas and outlines together? Do you both write and edit?
This is the question that we are asked the most because, apparently, most married couples cannot work together. (We've been married only a year and a half, though, so perhaps that's why we can pull it off.) We usually start brainstorming story ideas, and once we've decided on the story we want to write, we work on the outline together as well. We go into really specific details, chapter by chapter. This is necessary when you have two people writing one story. (We learned this through trial and error. Let's just say there were spirited discussions during the writing process for the first book.) After all the planning is done, we then each take a chapter. Traditionally, Felicia starts the book and Adan ends it. We didn't plan for this to happen, it just happened. Once we're done with the first draft, we send it off to our editor, and the editing cycle begins.
How do you work with illustrator Andrew Tan?
Spectacularly well! He's an enormous geek, and he totally gets us. It also helps that he's a comic artist (who is nominated for an Eisner Award this year for a short story in his Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise collection), and he understands that we want our illustrations to be more than just straight depictions of scenes from the book; they have to add to the story. He often adds little nuggets to each illustration that we sometimes don't notice until after the book has been published. For example, in Sherlock Sam and the Sinister Letters in Bras Basah, we called the school in the book the Enterprise School (because we're huge Star Trek fans), and without prompting, Andrew drew Watson reading a Star Trek magazine in one of the illustrations.
Once the book is in the close-to-final stage of editing, Andrew will get a copy of the manuscript with our illustration instructions and we'll usually meet in person to hash out the details. Andrew will then come back with sketches and we'll go through a few rounds of edits before we finalize the illustrations.
He brings a lot to the table and we can genuinely say that the book wouldn't be as fantastic without him. The kids really love his illustrations, and now when we write, we can visualize the characters, which helps us write! We're very happy that Epigram Books chose him to be the series artist!
Adan, how does--if it does!--being an American add to and affect the series? What do you bring to it?
I am relatively new to Singapore (five years as of June 1) and can sometimes see interesting things in places that Felicia would find mundane, only because she's been here her entire life. Part of what we think makes the books work is showing Singaporeans that the neighborhoods and places they've grown up in can still hold surprises for them. Of course, being able to introduce these awesome places to international audiences at the same time is also a big plus.
I am especially fond of the third book because it deals a little with immigrants, and how sometimes they can feel lost and alone in this new place. When I first moved here, I also felt very homesick, and didn't know what to make of this new place with its heat and its weird food. But I ended up loving the food, tolerating the heat, and finding the love of my life here.
The third book also features a lot of Mexican food and culture, so I got to introduce some of my culture to Singapore and the region. And my parents got to guest star!
Will Sherlock Sam travel outside of Singapore?
Definitely! For our fifth book, Sherlock Sam, Watson and the Supper Club (what we've named his group of friends) will be traveling to either Penang or Malacca, in Malaysia. We've not decided yet. We hope to take him to other places around Asia as well, and maybe even farther abroad, but it will have to make sense in the story (we don't want them to travel just for the sake of traveling) and also link back to Singapore in some way. Both Penang and Malacca have very similar histories to Singapore, and we're sure the Supper Club's resident history buff, Nazhar, will have many things to say on the subject. Also, Sherlock Sam will have new food to investigate!
How did you two meet?
Adan had just come back from a trip to Spain, where he was seriously considering moving to, and was invited to a party held by his colleague and friend, Zhu Meishan. Felicia had also been invited, but she nearly didn't go as she was debating whether or not to be lazy and just stay home. Ultimately, we both went, and started talking about comic books. Adan liked that Felicia was an adorable, geeky girl in glasses, and Felicia liked that Adan was a shy, geeky boy in glasses. Adan decided that night not to move anywhere, and Felicia decided maybe it was a good thing to leave the house once in a while. The rest is history, except that Meishan has claimed naming rights on our first born as she takes sole credit for getting us together.