Felicia Low-Jimenez and Adan Jimenez are the husband and wife tandem behind the pseudonym A. J. Low. Adan was born in California to Mexican immigrant parents and lived in New York for almost ten years where he obtained his English Literature degree. Felicia was born and raised in Singapore and has a graduate degree in Literary theory. Both Adan and Felicia are experienced in the acquisition of, selling, and marketing (not to mention reading and writing) books.
Thank you, once again, Felicia and Adan (aka AJ Low) for being our featured guests in GatheringBooks this March-April.
You have been quite prolific over the past year, publishing a total of five books in all, with your sixth Sherlock Sam book to be released this April. How has this whirlwind experience been like for the both of you so far?
Very exciting! But also very tiring because we both have full-time jobs. It’s been awesome to see the books out in the stores, and going to schools and holding events to talk to the kids reading the books. That’s the best part — meeting the kids.
We really enjoy talking to the kids about the books we love reading and how that’s tied in to why we love writing as well. One of the most amazing things we’ve heard is how some reluctant readers have started reading because of Sherlock Sam. That has been one of our proudest moments.
Do tell our readers about how the concept of Sherlock Sam, the greatest kid detective in Singapore, was born? I think it’s safe to ask how he was conceived in both your minds (the birds and the bees question).
Our publisher Epigram Books was the one that conceived the idea of a boy detective running around Singapore solving mysteries. They invited several authors to pitch their ideas. We decided to do so because we’re enormous Sherlock Holmes fans (we love the original books, the new TV series and the movies)!
We were super excited when they liked our proposal best. Once we were selected, we immediately infused a lot of our personality into the character Sherlock Sam — he loves food, comics, science, math, and books, and he’s a huge geek like us.
Watson is no ordinary robot, being a sentient creature who can be quite persnickety and no-nonsense, yet an undeniably-loyal friend to Sherlock (with increasing super-powers too!). If you were to give a Primary 4 student (4th grader) some advice on how to create such a robot, what would be the key essential components required?
First, join the robotics club in your school. If your school doesn’t have a robotics club, start a petition to get your school to start one.
In your free time, practice building robots with whatever’s handy and available (we like using LEGOs). You can also ask your parents or your teachers to bring you to the Science Centre where they have workshops on building robots at their Robotics Learning Lab!
It would also help if you read and watched a lot of science fiction books and movies such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Wall-E, and of course Isaac Asimov’s Robot series. It’ll give you lots of ideas about how you want your own robot to look like or behave.
You mentioned in a few of your conference presentations (one of which I had the privilege to witness during the Little Lit Conference in Manila) that the best thing about working together as a couple is that you get to share the workload together, kind of like having a homework partner, and that you divide the work evenly amongst each other.
What are some of the things that you discovered about each other in the process of writing Sherlock Sam?
Felicia: Unexpectedly, Adan has a knack for writing the more sentimental scenes! You’ll see one such scene in our upcoming book, Sherlock Sam and the Cloaked Classmate in MacRitchie out mid-May 2014.
Also, Adan is much better than I am at public events and workshops. He’s a natural performer! This wasn’t the case when we first started out. Once, at a Primary One (7 year olds) talk, he used the word “forthwith” resulting in a lot of confused looks from the kids. However, now he’s a total pro and the kids love him. I’m more introverted and I’m not as good as ad-libbing as he is.
Adan: I discovered that Felicia is really good with kids. She is awesome at talking to them and making them feel like equals. I’m not so good with that, and I prefer to speak with adults.
She’s also super wacky with her writing. She sometimes comes up with the most ridiculous and hilarious things that make me laugh for days! And then we put them in the book. Sometimes she says things in conversation that we put in the books verbatim because they’re that hilarious.
In your interview with Red Dot Diva last year (dated 9 March 2013), you noted:
“We sometimes fight about Sherlock Sam stuff, but we fight about them like we fight about who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk. We have fun, and it makes the story better in the end.”
What do you find to be the common sources of arguments in the actual creative writing process: is it the play with words? the delivery of puns/witticisms? the narrative style? the plot? character profiles?
Haha. All of the above at different points in time. In the beginning we used to argue a lot more. Now that we have a better sense of the characters and have also figured out what our respective strengths and weaknesses are, things go much more smoothly.
Felicia still sometimes complains that Adan writes dialogue that sounds too American and Adan still complains that Felicia leaves two spaces after her final period in the paragraph.
In the same interview with Red Dot Diva, you mentioned how Nancy Drew influenced Adan and how Felicia grew up on the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, do share with our readers some of your favourite titles and a few mystery novels or detective stories (both for children and adults) that you believe to be particularly outstanding.
This is tough. It was so long ago. We don’t have specific titles that we loved or thought of as outstanding. We just really loved the series as wholes. We would read whatever we could get our hands on and read them again and again.
We recommend the above, as well as the original Sherlock Holmes stories, which are obviously a huge inspiration to us. More recently, we really loved the Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Adan’s a huge fan of the hardboiled detective novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as the translated Inspector Chen novels by Qiu Xiaolong.
Describe how you were like as children. Is Felicia a little bit like Wendy who dislikes wearing dresses and skirts? Is Adan similar to Sherlock in his fascination for science, and similar to the both of you with Sherlock’s love for science, robots, food, time travel?
Felicia was very much a tomboy growing up. She went fishing in drains and rolled around in the dirt a lot. A little known fact about Felicia is that she was in the National Cadet Corps when she was in secondary school and was a markswoman. She also read a lot of science fiction, fantasy and comics. Felicia was also a lot like Eliza in many ways, she was a somewhat spoiled only child – only not as mean (or so she claims).
Adan was a nerd. A huge, enormous nerd. And it’s all thanks to his family. He watched original Star Trek and 60s Batman reruns with his mom, he played original NES video games with his dad, and he got boxes of comics from his cousin. As he got older, he got nerdier. We assume he’ll be some kind of King of the Nerds when he’s 100 years old.
Talk about your love for books and reading: science fiction, graphic novels, and comics. Let’s say Sherlock Sam can be a Reading Ambassador for a day, how would he be able to persuade his friends and classmates to read books?
Reading isn’t just important, it’s essential. Reading allows you to live thousands and thousands of different lives that might be entirely different from your own. Reading allows to you travel to places that might never exist. Reading gives you dragons, magicians, superheroes. Reading is life. In fact, it’s many lives.
And it’s important that you read what you like, and not what someone else tells you to. If you like mystery books, then read that. If you like sci-fi, then read that. If you like comics, then read that. Whatever it is, as long as you read.
As you know, our current reading theme is “Rainbow Colors of Diversity” which highlights multicultural titles. Could you share how you infuse the multi-racial, multi-ethnic aspect of Singapore in your Sherlock Sam books? For instance, I noted that you made mention of international school students in Book 3, as well as included the colloquial concept of ang moh, which can even be considered polemical on occasion. Is this a conscious attempt on your part to highlight the vibrant and diverse community (which sometimes can be controversial too) in Singapore?
Actually, yes. It’s a conscious attempt to show that there are many facets to life in Singapore. But it’s also just a representation of life in Singapore. Felicia grew up with friends from all ethnicities, and as a kid, it wasn’t something that she used to consciously think about. It just was. Adan had a similar upbringing. His small town in California was filled with people from various races.
We have also included non-traditional family units in our stories. Jimmy’s parents are divorced, and his paternal grandmother helps raise him and his four sisters. Nazhar comes from a single parent home, and is raised only by his father (though we haven’t explicitly stated this, there’ve been many hints). Eliza is a somewhat neglected child, whose parents are always away on trips. We’ve written another short story unrelated to the Sherlock Samiverse (that should be available soonish) which features a child with a parent in prison.
That’s something that’s very important to us. We actually read a review of one of our books that said we deliberately included an increasing number of ethnicities as a marketing ploy. But that isn’t true at all. We want every kid who reads our books to be able to see him or herself in our characters and also see their friends in there too. We want kids to feel included and to realise that hey, if they wanted to, they could be detectives and heroes too.
Adan has a special mission because as a child of immigrants and now an immigrant himself, he knows how difficult life can be for immigrant children. Sherlock Sam and the Sinister Letters in Bras Basah was our way of reaching out to these children and hopefully showing them a Singapore that we love.
Felicia is Peranakan and has never quite felt either Chinese or Malay. She was the first generation in her family to study Mandarin in school. Her parents and grandparent’s generation spoke primarily English and Peranakan Malay at home. It can be confusing for a kid and it’s always been something that she’s keenly aware of.
Do share with our readers some of your favourite multicultural books – both for adults and children; and yes, graphic novels too!
The one that comes immediately to mind is the X-Men. Besides being mutants, the next evolutionary step of humankind (which is why they’re so feared and hated), they’re also from all over the world with all sorts of awesome backgrounds! Storm is an African-American orphan who spent her youth worshipped as a goddess in the Serengeti. Nightcrawler was a circus performer during his childhood in Germany. Jubilee is a Chinese-American mallrat. Gambit is a Cajun thief from New Orleans. Magneto is a Jewish man who lived through the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Thunderbird was a Native American raised on a reservation. Banshee was an Irish agent of Interpol. And on and on. All these guys were from different places with different backgrounds, but they all came together to fight bad guys, and their differences didn’t matter as much as what they had in common.
Adan loves Scalped by Jason Aaron and RM Guera, a crime drama that took place almost entirely on a Lakota reservation and featured mostly Lakota characters.
We both loved Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, which features a Vietnamese family and a Mexican cab driver taking in a child not their own. Felicia read a free copy first, and then immediately went out and bought Adan a copy for Christmas, which now holds on our bookshelves.
Alif the Unseen and Cairo by G. Willow Wilson (with MK Perker on Cairo) featured almost entirely Arab casts, and are super awesome as they explore Arabic mythology and folklore.
We could literally list these for days.
You have been doing a lot of school visits and workshops with children, what are some of the most significant learnings that you have gained from this experience?
That kids love the SCIENCE! pose, that they are way smarter than people give them credit for, that they like it when characters fall down, and that they have fantastic imaginations that just need the tiniest outlet to grow and mature.
We’ve also learned that some kids cannot wait for the next book to come out. That someone loves the world and characters we’ve created so much, they can’t wait to visit it again is truly awesome, and we mean both the modern meaning and that old-school ‘awesome’ which mixes fear and wonder.
What are some of the most interesting (or heartwarming) feedback that you have gotten from your children-readers?
A six-year-old British boy who had been in Singapore for only six months at the time was super excited to meet us at a store event because we were writing books about his new home. Also, he loved the SCIENCE! pose and did it with Adan.
A nine- or ten-year-old girl who made us hand drawn Sherlock Sam and Watson bookmarks that we use in whatever books we’re reading.
But really, any piece of correspondence we receive from fans by email, on Facebook, on the website, or hand-delivered is awesome and great.
You share a lot of Sherlock Sam’s favourite eating places here in Singapore (e.g. Chin Mee Chin Confectionery in Book 1, Rochor Original Beancurd in Selegie Road in Book 2, the LE Café Confectionery in Book 3, Cheong Lian Yuen Restaurant in Book 4, the Road 7 Hawker Centre in Book 5, Wok Inn Fish & Chips in Toa Payoh in Book 6) – do walk us through the kind of research that you do that makes this possible.
We mostly walk around and eat whatever delicious things we can find. For example, we took a walk around Balestier while researching Book 7 (we’ve just finished the first draft!) and ate everything we could without exploding.
Food from a chicken rice restaurant, a bakery, a rice dumpling shop, a bak kut teh stall, and more (it really was a miracle we didn’t explode). At least one of these will make it into the final draft.
When we were writing the first book, we didn’t actually have to do a lot of research as Felicia had grown up in the area and knew it like the back of her hand, yet she insisted on going every week to “research” at Chin Mee Chin bakery.
One of the difficulties in writing series novels is that they usually tend to be formulaic and eventually predictable – what are some of the things that you do in your writing that ensure that your loyal readers would constantly be surprised with every new book?
The biggest thing is that we try to make every mystery different, with different means and motives. The crime is never the same (and sometimes there isn’t even a crime, just something weird is going on). Setting them in different places also helps.
And to make things even more interesting, we’re writing the next three books as a linked trilogy that will introduce the Moriarty to Sam’s Sherlock. And even Watson will have competition!
Will we see Sherlock Sam, Wendy, Jimmy, and Nazhar grow into secondary school, junior college, university?
We don’t know! We love them as middle-grade kids because while they are all bright and intelligent, they are still young enough to be wide-eyed and naïve and we would hate for them to grow up and lose that. We’re reluctant to even age them a year because Wendy, Nazhar and Eliza would have to deal with the dreaded PSLE exams in Primary 6.
What is the best thing about being Sherlock Sam’s parents?
We get to put him, Watson and the Supper Club in ridiculous costumes.
We’re actually very protective over Sherlock, Watson and all our characters really. We get upset when people say nasty things about them because to us, they’re very real (at least in our heads). Right now, because we’re so familiar with our characters, we know exactly what they’ll do in different circumstances – it’s like having a kid but without the sleepless nights. Wait. Actually, they’ve been quite a few sleepless nights. But without the worrying about exams!
If you were to imagine how Sherlock Sam would be like in 30 years time, what kind of adult would he be? What type of work would he be doing? Essentially, what are your dreams for this brainchild of yours?
We think he’ll be very much the same as he is now (just like Adan and Felicia are essentially taller versions of themselves at that age). He’ll still be a detective because he’s curious about anything and everything, and because he genuinely wants to help people. He’ll also be a genius scientist because he wants to be like his dad. He might also develop his own video game. He’ll collect lots of LEGOs too. Basically he’ll be a lot like us except a lot smarter.
When I first saw the title, I thought you were describing me! 😉 I think I would really like this writing team! 😀
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