It’s elementary: “Charlotte Holmes” series author Brittany Cavallaro shares her journey from Interlochen Arts Academy to published novelist
Move over, Watson and Holmes—there’s a new crime-solving duo on the scene.
Move over, Watson and Holmes—there’s a new crime-solving duo on the scene. They’re quick, they’re clever, and they’ll stop at nothing in their mission to hunt down the truth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be surprised to find out that these gifted detectives are just teenagers, both characters in a young adult series by novelist Brittany Cavallaro.
Brittany Cavallaro is the New York Times bestselling author of the Charlotte Holmes novels, including A Study in Charlotte and A Question of Holmes (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books). She’s also an alumna of Interlochen Arts Academy and an instructor of creative writing at her alma mater. Currently, she’s working with fellow Interlochen classmate Kit Williamson to adapt the “Valdemar Universe” fantasy series for television.
Here, Cavallaro shares the journey that took her from Arts Academy to being a published novelist and explains her gender-swapped rereading of the Watson/Holmes duo.
From Arts Academy student to published novelist
Cavallaro knew she was going to be a writer from a very young age.
“I was always reading,” she says. “I remember being embarrassingly old when I realized that there were actually people writing those books—that being an author was something that you could do.”
Once she’d chosen her future career, Cavallaro didn’t look back. She signed up for writing classes whenever possible and set her course for a school that would nourish her growing talent: Interlochen Arts Academy.
“Coming to Interlochen for my junior year of high school was the turning point for me,” she says. “We had instructors here who took us seriously as young artists and young writers. I was able to approach my writing with the same kind of commitment that had traditionally felt reserved for academic classes.”
Cavallaro has many fond memories of her time at the school, including classes with the founder of Interlochen Arts Academy’s Creative Writing program, Jack Driscoll. Driscoll instilled a love for poetry in his students and would frequently recite aloud from pieces he’s memorized. He also sprinkled his classes with advice for students who wanted to make this their career: “Talent will take you so far, but the thing that ultimately has to rise up to meet it is hard work.”
Cavallaro took his advice seriously, emerging from her year at Interlochen with sharpened writing skills, a passion for poetry, and a dream of publishing her own novel someday. After graduating high school, she attended Middlebury College and studied American Literature and Creative Writing. She followed this up with a year of study at the University of Edinburgh.
When it came time for graduate school, Cavallaro was forced to choose a favorite between her two loves: poetry and fiction.
“That was a really difficult decision because one of the things Interlochen had instilled in me was the idea that you should be a well-rounded writer. You should be able to work in multiple genres and they all inform each other,” says Cavallaro.
In the end, she chose the MFA program in poetry at the University of Wisconsin Madison, but took fiction workshops while she was there. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Soon, her first poetry collection, Girl King, was picked up by a publisher.
But Cavallaro didn’t lose sight of her dream of writing a novel. Before long, she began drafting a young adult series about two teenage detectives.
Reimagining Watson and Holmes
The Charlotte Holmes series was born when Cavallaro drew on her childhood fascination with mystery novels and reimagined the classic Sherlock Holmes detective stories in a modern setting. From the start, the two lead characters drove Cavallaro’s work.
“What really drew me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories was the characters,” says Cavallaro. “I really loved the duality of Holmes and Watson—I loved that one of them was the brain and one was the heart.”
In Cavallaro’s series, Watson becomes Jamie Watson, a sensitive 16-year-old boy who finds an unlikely friend in his boarding school classmate, the girl genius Charlotte Holmes. The switch in Holmes’ gender was a purposeful decision on Cavallaro’s part.
“Readers tend to be comfortable with a male antihero,” she says. “We're comfortable with the male genius who is rude, stays on the outskirts of society, and isn’t here to make friends. But when we take those qualities and we map them onto a teenage girl, and when we make her the smartest person in the room, we get really uncomfortable with that reality.”
For me, writing fiction really comes out of wanting to develop a sense of atmosphere. I want to write the kind of book that you can disappear in, that you feel like you can live in.
In the series’ first book, A Study in Charlotte, Jamie and Charlotte work against the clock to solve the murders of two fellow students—both of which are eerily patterned after crimes in famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Meanwhile, someone is trying to frame the teenaged detectives for the murders.
As she wrote the Charlotte Holmes series, Cavallaro was inspired by her time at Interlochen Arts Academy. The novel takes place at a fictional boarding school called Sherringford.
“For me, writing fiction really comes out of wanting to develop a sense of atmosphere. I want to write the kind of book that you can disappear in, that you feel like you can live in. Part of the reason why the Charlotte Holmes novels are set at a boarding school is because I attended Interlochen Arts Academy and I teach there now. It very much has its own atmosphere—it feels engrossing and immersive. It was fun for me to draw on that experience."
Teaching future novelists at Interlochen
From being a student at Interlochen, Cavallaro’s journey has led her back to a teaching position at the school. Recently, she brought in her former instructor, Jack Driscoll, as a guest artist for her own students.
Cavallaro finishes each day of teaching at Interlochen with her favorite part of the job: giving one-on-one tutorials to student writers. She’s passing on the same careful attention to detail that her own work was once shown at Interlochen.
“I really love the ability to see what my students are passionately interested in, and then treat their work with the kind of seriousness that it deserves and also the kind of seriousness that my work was treated with by my own teachers when I was a student here,” she says.
At Interlochen Arts Academy, Cavallaro was treated like she was already a novelist. Then she became one.
To learn more about the Creative Writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy, click here.