They met at a dinner party, bonded over the X-Men, kissed on the fourth date and, writing together under the pen name A.J. Low, created a precocious, bespectacled kid detective with a penchant for solving mysteries. Since 2013, the couple in question - comic-book comrades and well-read, perfectly-matched pair Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez - have authored 14 books about the adventures of Samuel Tan Cher Lock (a.k.a. Sherlock Sam), a food-loving local schoolboy who relishes challenges of any kind, be it a missing cookbook, a dastardly adversary or an adventure in a parallel universe. Inevitably, Sherlock also has a sidekick named Watson, a low-tech, grumpy robot to keep him grounded in reality.
Jimenez and Low conducted writing workshops over two recent weekends at this year's Singapore Writers Festival, organised by the National Arts Council. They created Sherlock Sam when noted independent publisher Epigram Books floated the idea of a Singaporean boy detective and asked local writers to pitch for the series, aimed primarily at eight- to 12-year olds.
It turned out to be a tailor-made proposition for the couple, who enjoy hanging out with each other above all else and possess a child-like enthusiasm for anything involving comic-books, fantasy adventure and science fiction.
Jimenez, 35, hails from a small town in central California's San Joaquin Valley and is a vast repository of pop culture references. He turned a lifelong appreciation for analogue and video games into a career and now works for IGG, a mobile video game company. Low, 40, grew up in Katong and is a bookworm by any definition, having developed a love of reading from young. She is currently publisher of Difference Engine, a Singapore-based independent comics publishing firm.
With a distinctly Singapore identity, dialogue to match and illustrations by Andrew Tan (also known as drewscape), the series has found success in Singapore and an overseas audience as well - it is available in North America and several of the books have been translated into Turkish and Bahasa Indonesia. It just goes to show: a plucky kid with smarts, a nose for deduction - and a healthy appetite - is literary gold.
Apart from being married to each other, what makes A.J. Low a winning combo?
Epigram asked writers to pitch for a 10-year-old detective, with Sherlock and his older sister Wendy initially the focus - Watson wasn't in the first draft - and the more we talked, the more sense it made for us to do the pitch together. We realised we have different strengths. Adan didn't have enough local knowledge to pull it off, his dialogue was very American kid, but he's better at action scenes, locating things. Felicia is better at dialogue and the more human moments.
Sherlock's adventures have taken him from Fort Canning, Queenstown and Pulau Ubin to London, New York and Seoul. How do you decide on the theme for each book?
We plan everything ahead of time, down to the jokes. The Penang book came about because of a joke and the story was built around it. Typically, Felicia starts and Adan ends. We write the story first and trust Drew to do the illustrations - he's very meticulous. We try not to be moralistic or message-driven. Instead, we make sure to have fun when we write. Sometimes we include a lot of pop-culture references, sci-fi and geek stuff that we're interested in. Some readers, or their parents, will pick up on the insider references - for example the four sisters of Sherlock's classmate Jimmy are named for female companions of (long-running TV series) Dr. Who.
It's been about six years since the first book, and it took eight books for Sherlock to age one year - he's now 11. In what other ways has he changed?
When we started out, Sherlock was clearly the smartest kid in the room - he was calling the shots. As we matured as writers and the characters grew, we became more nuanced. His sister Wendy is 12 and going through the PSLE. We agreed to tell a more grown-up tale, and he's more willing to listen to his friends now. Previously he shut everybody out to some extent. In the trilogy he disobeyed his parents and sneaked out of home. Sherlock doesn't care that he's not the perfect kid, he's a foodie and so he's a little chubby.
Adan, you grew up near Porterville, a small town in central California. How did that prepare you for writing about the exploits of a Singaporean boy?
When I was a kid, I always liked to tell stories to my little brother, to keep him entertained. Sometimes I told my parents stories - although they called them lies. Inspiration came during sixth grade when my teacher looked at what I'd written and encouraged me to write for a living - that set me on the path. Every job I've had, I've tried to finagle my way into writing - even at my first job in a sandwich shop, I got to write the menu.
Felicia, what about you?
My parents liked to read, and we had wall-to-wall books at home. I'm always telling stories in my head, maybe because I'm an only child. Even now I like spending time at home, reading - it sounds boring but I'm never bored. The first book, Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong, was inspired in part by my childhood memories. Many of Sherlock Sam's exploits can be traced to your personal experiences and hobbies. For example, the latest book, Sherlock Sam and the Mysterious Mastermind in Seoul, was inspired by the long-running Korean variety show Running Man. We take a lot of inspiration from things we read and watch on TV. When we travel, we spend a lot of time in bookstores like Strand Bookstore in New York, Tsutaya in Tokyo's Daikanyama district, Foyles and Waterstones in London and Eslite in Taipei. Adan likes going to the comics section in bookstores in different countries and trying to find something specific from that country.
You've found your niche with Sherlock, but are you also interested in writing for other genres?
I don't think either of us ever thought we'd write for kids but now, we're more comfortable writing kids' stories - we're reluctant to lose that innocence. Trying to get in the head of a teenager in the Young Adult genre is different - it requires a lot of introspection. It's really nice to talk to kids about the stories because they see things that we don't. It's also nice when teachers tell us that kids who don't like to read want to read the Sherlock Sam books. Mysteries are forever - they're always going to be around.