When Kapiti-based author Debbie Cowens was young, she longed to be a detective/mystery writer: a Sherlockian version of Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, a novelist who solved crimes with a magnifying glass and encyclopedic knowledge of forensics and the underworld. Debbie, author of Murder & Matchmaking and Mansfield with Monsters (which she co-wrote with her husband, Matt) tells us why she loves mashups, or, as she likes to call them, "literary matchmaking".
“Mashup” is a term of which I’m not particularly fond. This is, I fear, an unfortunate beginning for a piece on my fanatic love of it. It causes pangs of aesthetic discomfort, conjuring up images of chucking a couple of much-beloved literary works into a pot of boiling water and then pulverizing them into a shapeless pulp. The word itself suggests what I would argue is the exact opposite of what is to be celebrated in a well-done mashup.
I much prefer the notion of “literary matchmaking”. For me, this better reflects the spirit of the endeavour. It is as though a writer has formed close friendships with the characters and plots of their favourite books over the years, so they invite the two unsuspecting texts to an elegant dinner party and see if any sparks fly when they meet. The matchmaking writer has their ulterior motives. They have plotted and imagined the suitability of the match in advance. They manoeuvre the conversations and situations to maximise the chances of success. They devise and scheme ways to get the two books alone to be charmed by one another and find what similarities they may share. Interfering and presumptuous? Yes. But not necessarily unsuccessful.
Am I by nature a matchmaker who has taken it upon herself to foist her attentions about her favourite books? I must confess that like many an Austen fan desirous of procrastinating on the laundry or equally tedious chores, I have chanced upon one of those internet multiple choice quizzes ‘Which Jane Austen heroine are you?’ I answered a couple of questions rather dishonestly with the hope of coming out as Elizabeth Bennet, but I ended up as Emma Woodhouse. From this I conclude two things: firstly, I am unskilled at inferring what answers to select to obtain desired results in personality tests, and secondly, I’m probably more of a meddlesome matchmaker than I care to admit.
However, I think my love of writing mashups stemmed from more than a latent desire to play around in the worlds of treasured books. My love of the infinite possibilities for reinvention and reimagining of stories goes back to my childhood. I first saw an episode of the BBC Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett one night when, unable to get to sleep, I stumbled down the hall to find my parents watching TV. I became an avid Sherlock Holmes fanatic – I found the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes on the family bookshelf and set about reading it with the pride and excitement of any eight-year-old with their small hands on a hefty tomb with pages perfumed with dusty years and dense with lines of tiny words.
Not long after this I watched a video of a Disney animated Sherlock Holmes/mouse mashup The Great Mouse Detective. I loved it and it led to me writing many pun-titled animal mashup stories that year, such as Star Paws. I was entranced by the idea that two things of greatness could be melded together not to make something better or worse than the components, but something entirely new. Before I had only been exposed to the comic delight of Muppet parodies or Roald Dahl’s brilliantly subversive take on fairy tales in Revolting Rhymes, but this was something else. The Great Mouse Detective captured the Victorian feel of Sherlock Holmes and the genius of the detective. It had all the softness and cutesy charm of a Disney cartoon about anthropomorphised rodents, but it had something different, something unique, something new. It was as though someone found two pieces from different jigsaws that happened to fit together and when they connected, they formed a whole new image. Yet when you adjusted your gaze, you could recognise that they were parts of different originals.
One of the first encounters I had with a more adult version the mashup concept was with Alan Moore’s brilliant graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which takes characters from a variety of 19th century classics and teams them up to fight greater evils and, at times, each other. Mashups have become increasingly popular over the years. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies spawned a trend of supernatural classic mashups, including Ben H. Winters Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. One of my personal favourites is Ian Doescher’s clever William Shakespeare’s Star Wars trilogy. Along with my husband, Matt Cowens, I adapted a number of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories with a range of classic monsters and supernatural elements, published as the collection Mansfield with Monsters and the stand-alone At the Bay of Cthulhu.
Murder & Matchmaking, my Pride and Prejudice meets Sherlock Holmes novel, very much felt a happy mixture of all of the above. I certainly did my matchmaking best to set up Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Sherlock Darcy, for I dearly wished to see my favourite heroine and my favourite detective fall in love. They may have quarrelled and disagreed, but that’s to be expected with many of Austen’s couples. Likewise, there was infinite delight in finding small jigsaw fragments in the works of Conan Doyle and Austen that fit together to form something new. Liberties have been taken, meddling most certainly occurred, as did some unexpected character transformations. My Lydia Bennet may have become a pug, Mrs Bennet a serial killer, and Lizzie an aspiring detective – but I think in all of these altered characters, fans and lovers of Jane Austen will happily be able to adjust their gaze and recognise familiar traits of their original. What I love about mashups is they allow both writers and readers to both delight in the twists and surprises of a new amalgamation whilst being reminded of what they treasure in the originals.
Debbie Cowens is a Kapiti-based writer and English teacher. She co-authored the award-winning Mansfield with Monsters with her husband and her stories have been published in both New Zealand and international publications and anthologies.
Murder & Matchmaking is her first novel and it weaves together many of her favourite things: Jane Austen heroines, a Sherlock Holmes-inspired detective, mischievous canines and intrigues. She is a little surprised that more chocolate didn’t sneak its way into the narrative.