Sulari Gentill: Author of the Roland Sinclair historical crime series

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image-sularigentill200Sulari Gentill’s latest novel is Paving the New Road, the fourth book in the Rowland Sinclair historical crime series. It is the second book in the series she’s released in 2012 and has just been awarded the Sisters in Crime Davitt Award for the best crime novel by a woman. The first book in the series, A Few Right Thinking Men, was nominated in 2011 for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel in the South Easy Asia and Pacific.

After a long career in law, Sulari turned her hand to writing just five years ago. She is now a full-time writer and in the last three years has published six books – four in the Rowland Sinclair crime series and two in a young adult fantasy adventure series, the Hero trilogy.

Click play to listen. Running time: 18.35

Paving the New Road

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Sydney Writers’ Centre in Milsons Point. I’m here with Sulari Gentill, whose latest book is Paving the New Road.

Welcome, Sulari. Thanks for coming.

Sulari
Thank you for having me.

Danielle
Tell us about your latest book.

Sulari

Paving the New Road is interesting in the series because it actually takes Rowland Sinclair out of local political issues and places him smack back in the international political arena, which was, in 1933, particularly tumultuous and darkening. Hitler had just become chancellor of Germany and things were getting already difficult in Germany for people who were socialist, trade unionists, and people who basically fell out of alignment with what the Nazi party degreed as German.

So, he finds himself in that atmosphere and in that environment, with his entourage of bohemians, involved in an international spying operation, but of course he investigates a murder while he’s at it.

Danielle
You mentioned that this is part of a series, and this is the fourth book in that series.

Sulari
It is.

Danielle
Four books since 2011, is that right?

Sulari
2010 A Few Right Thinking Men came out.

Danielle
2010, Okay. So, what it is about this period of history and these characters that fascinate you so much that you’re now into the fourth book?

Sulari
I’m always interested in motivations and why people do what they do, and why people don’t do something as well. So, it’s not so much the stances people take, but the stances they won’t take and how that changes over time.

The 1930s is such a rich and completely extreme political time where the tensions between left and right were so strong, that it’s a particularly fertile period in which to set another story, and you achieve a layering almost subconsciously without even trying, because people are working against a backdrop that’s almost a character in itself.

Danielle
Yep, yep. And you feature a lot of real-life characters, Somerset Maugham and Kingsford Smith are just two that I’ve picked up in Paving the New Road. How true to life are they, and how much did you have to fill in the gaps?

Sulari
Well, because I didn’t know them personally they can’t be completely true to life, but I tend to have an ethic when I’m writing that I don’t accuse someone who’s real of doing something that I have no evidence that they did. So, in that sense I stay true to the historical record. And, that’s a personal thing that I put on myself, simply because I just think that’s fair. Legally speaking I think you can pretty much say anything about someone who’s dead, because it’s a fiction, but that isn’t always ethically the best way to proceed.

In terms of their characters and their personalities I try to draw on what the historical record says they were like, but in the end I have to just make it up, because I didn’t meet them. And, they’re are proponents in a story, and once their characters or their individual stories aren’t central to the story or the narrative that I’m writing, it certainly influences it. And the way people bump together in history and in life really interests me. I also think it’s an opportunity to actually show these great larger than life figures from a different angle, through the eyes of someone who may have met them in their own context. So Rowland Sinclair allows me to meet all of these wonderful people that I would like to meet myself, but can’t because they’re dead.

Danielle
What comes first in these situations – do you focus on a particular figure in history and decide you want them in your story? Or the story comes around to give you a chance to include them?

Sulari
The story comes around. I’m very story-driven, the major thing for me and the primary thing for me is the actual story I’m telling and the narrative. The figures that walk in seem to step in of their own accord, because of that period in time. Of course, you know, occasionally I come across a figure in my other research and they’re so fabulous and so interesting and I can see Rowland’s reaction to them. And, it’s almost as if he’s goating me to write them so he can meet them. And, so they find a way of stepping into the story, and bringing their own light to what I’m trying to tell.

Danielle
Yeah. Now, you’ve had an interesting path to writing, you were a lawyer for a long time. I understand that you’ve only been writing really seriously for about five years.

Sulari
Even less than that I’d say. Yes, since my younger son was born. Actually, not just writing seriously, just writing at all.

But, that being said the law is a writing profession, and there’s – I often say tongue and cheek that it’s a good apprentice to writing fiction. And, whilst in some sense I think the law society would raise their eyebrows at that statement, the fact is that the legal profession is about writing quickly and precisely, and choosing your words carefully, because each word has a very particular meaning, and lawyers understand that. So, I think that is good training, in terms of wordsmithing for writing. I think that’s how that has influenced the way I write, not so much what I write, but the way I write, in terms of process.

I was a lawyer for lots of years, and that was my training. And, I quite enjoyed being a lawyer, it wasn’t a bad profession, as far as that went, but at some point I obviously realized that there was something more for me, and there was something different that I should be doing. I picked up writing on a whim, as one of the mad hobbies that I used to pick up – I wield, I paint, I can pregnancy test your cows… But, I was one of those people that was always picking up different courses and doing bizarre things to keep my mind occupied. And, it was almost – completely, or it wasn’t completely – I just one day decided, “I might have a go at writing a novel, it’s something that I haven’t done yet.”

Once I started I just found it was such a natural expression for me that it was almost like learning to breath properly. And, once you open that gate you can’t go back. And, that’s where I’ve found myself here.

Danielle
Yep. Well, remarkably for somebody who has really only just started writing you’ve been nominated for Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and you just won a major crime award, the Davitt Award in Australia. How does that make you feel, as a new writer?

Sulari
Well, it was – I mean both awards are really different. The nomination for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize was lovely at the time because I was debuting my first book. And, I still have this feeling, even today, I sometimes feel like a pretender, especially when I’m amongst other writers I think, “What am I doing here? I shouldn’t be here, these people are so much better read. They know their stuff so much better than I.” But, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and that short-listing made me feel a little bit more comfortable and a little bit more at home in what was very much a new world to me.

The Davitt is particularly gorgeous for me, because it’s administered by the Sisters in Crime of Victoria, and they’re a very supportive group, and a fun group to belong to. So, I really feel like that’s an acknowledgement by my peers, and peers that I really value as friends, as well as colleagues. And, of course, crime writing is what I do. I quite enjoy the idea of being a crime writer, it feels kind of tough to win the Davitt. So, I know how to kill.

Danielle
But, interestingly, you’re not just a crime writer, because you also have the fantasy adventure series –

Sulari
Yes, yes. That was where I started.

Danielle
– you have two book for. How are you managing two different series, such vastly different types of books?

Sulari
Actually, it makes the process much easier, I write alternatively. So, I write a Greek mythic fiction, then I write a Rowland Sinclair, and switch back to Greek mythic fiction when that is done. What that means for me is I get a break from each set of characters, and it keeps the writing fresh. So, by the time I come back to writing Rowland I’ve missed him, because I haven’t written him for six months or so while I’ve been writing the other book. I want to get back in with him and his crew. Similarly with the Greeks, once I’ve been writing a Rowland book for six months I miss them, and I want to get back into swords and togas and the like. So, it keeps me motivated and fresh, and keeps me very focused and interested in what I’m writing at the time.

And, I never have that feel of getting sick of a novel. And, I know just from writers that I’ve spoken to, towards the end of the novel there can be that sort of grind, you’ve been working on this novel for five years, et cetera, et cetera. But, for me because it’s such vastly different genres they seem to wipe the slate clean each time, and give me a whole new breath with which to go forward.

Danielle
So, given you’re so prolific and so easily able to switch between genres, what’s the process for you with a new novel? Do you stick to a strict plan and a daily writing routine, or does it just all come out in a rush?

Sulari
I don’t plot at all.

Danielle
Even the crime?

Sulari
Even the crime.

And I write chronologically, so I start from the first word of the book and just keep writing. That, for me, builds a natural pace, so I don’t have to think consciously about maintaining pace and so on in the book. And, because I don’t know what’s happening it comes out in a sense of interest and discovery that’s natural and fits well with the crime novels, in particular.

As far as my daily writing process, I write daily, but for me the discipline is not writing, it’s stopping. I’m still at that stage, and I hope it doesn’t change, but I’m still at that stage where the actual mechanics of sitting down at my computer and disappearing into my own head is just wonderful for me, and I look forward to that light, I really enjoy it. Certainly when I think of a holiday I think in terms of being left alone to write, not escaping my writing in any way.

So, that daily process of actually writing every day is just normal and natural for me, and in fact I tend to get tense if I haven’t had time to actually work on a novel. I’m fairly deadline-orientated too, I like to beat deadlines. I tend to self-impose deadlines and say, “OK, by such and such a time that will be over,” and then move to this – exceeding them, so that I can move onto the next thing. I don’t stop between novels, either, so as soon as I’ve finished one the next day the next one has begun. And, that can be done because I’m switching from genres. I don’t feel the need to exorcise one novel before I move onto the next one, because that’s done in the process of switching to such a vastly different genre.

Danielle
Typically then with a novel that you spent, say, six months on, how many drafts would you normally write? And is there a process of self-editing in there at all?

Sulari
I think there must be a process of self-editing, because there’s only one draft.

But, that’s because I dream a lot of my books, and before the words are down I can actually see the action. When I put down the words it’s exactly what I want to happen. So, it’s really that draft that goes off to my editors. Now, of course, editors have comments, and publishers have comments, and proofing. I tend to miss out “the’s” all the time.

It wouldn’t matter how many times I read it, I won’t be able to see it, and that’s where your editors and proper proof editing comes into its own. But, generally it’s the way – my first draft and the final draft is not that dissimilar.

Danielle
Right. OK. That’s very impressive.

Sulari
It’s just naturally the way I write. I don’t know that it necessarily is better or worse that someone who writes fifteen drafts and starts in the middle of the book and moves outwards, or whatever.

I just think that we sort of climb the mountain by own path, and the way that’s most natural for us is probably the quickest, and the best way.

Danielle
But, you feel like you have that freedom to climb the mountain your own way simply because you just made that snap decision and said, “I’m going to do it.”

Sulari
Yes.

Danielle
Rather than… you know?

Sulari
I did, because I was completely naïve. I think – I have this feeling that if I had taken a lot of courses and I had a lot of exposure to the literary world I might never have written because I would have been intimidated, or I would have thought… and I did have a great period of time where I was aware that people wrote several drafts and books were supposed to take years to write, and I didn’t write because I thought, “No, I can’t spend three years on a book. I can’t…” because it wasn’t naturally me. And, I don’t have – I haven’t read everything that’s ever come out, and I haven’t done courses and so on. And, that did inhibit me for a while from thinking that I could write a novel.

In the end the whim take took me to write a novel wasn’t because I was actually thinking about it seriously in terms of publication or anything of the sort. It was just, you know, “There’s this great story and nobody else is telling it. I think I might try it and see what happens.”

Danielle
So now that Paving a New Road is out, are you moving straight onto the next novel?

Sulari
I’m just finalizing the final book in the Greek mythology series, and that will be done in the next week or so. And, I have already started thinking about the next Rowland book. I know where it’s going to be set. I have no idea who’s going to die, or who’s going to do it at the moment, but that will reveal itself in the fullness of time. I have some ideas of interesting figures who are wondering around in 1933 that I think Rowland might bump into. So basically in the next couple of weeks I’ll just sit down and start.

Danielle
Great. Just, finally, what’s your advice to new writers?

Sulari
I think try and figure out with your writing what it is that you like best about your own work, and defend that. Try and keep that, try and stay true to that. Everything else take advice on, everything else try and learn, but I think it’s often much harder to define what’s good about your work than to pick what the problems of your work are. And, it’s something that writers don’t often actually sit down and try and conceptualize, because we have ideas of modesty or whatever, in terms of our work. But, really you wouldn’t be a writer if there wasn’t something about your work, something about what you were saying that you thought was good and different, and needed to stay exactly as it was.

Danielle
That’s excellent advice. Thanks so much, Sulari. Good luck with the book.

Sulari
Thank you very much.

Danielle
And on congratulations on the award.

Sulari
Thank you. Thank you very much.


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