Monday, 30 September 2013

Kristen's Echat With... Sulari Gentil

I love crime fiction and, when not researching, always have one on the go. I’m keen on history, and particularly enjoy it when a crime takes place during one of my favourite periods. I remember listening to a book segment on my local ABC one afternoon in July 2011 and the reviewer was raving about a new book by an author I had never heard of. I got excited when I realised it was a crime book and even more so when the reviewer started talking about the setting, the Aquitania. This was the vessel that took Clive Caldwell (the subject of my first biography) to the Middle East and I was interested to know more about it and its backdrop for a mystery novel. I’m also fond of the inter-war period so, as far as I was concerned, it had all the ingredients (including handsome artist, Rowland Sinclair, and his bohemian friends) that would suit me and my reading tastes.

 
Sulari outside the Hydro Majestic which features in Miles off Course (and where Clive Caldwell also holidayed!)
I dredged up pen and paper out of my bag—I was in the car at the time—and wrote the author and title down: A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill. And then I heard it was the second in a series. Well, I don’t know about you, but I cannot begin a series in the middle, nor can I read the books out of order. I have start at the beginning (a very good place to start) or not at all. I went to every bookshop in Canberra to purchase A Few Right Thinking Men which had been published the year before but I could not find a copy. I did not want to order it as I like to check out new authors before reading them JUST in case I was not fussed on the writing style so I decided to wait until I found a copy.

 
I kept checking for months and had almost given up hope. It was not until I went to Hobart in September that I found it and A Decline in Prophets in Fullers, one of the best bookshops around. I was delighted. I liked what I saw and snaffled both of them, and sat paging through them as I ate a yummy savoury muffin in the store cafe. I was only in Hobart three days but I visited that shop three times, each time coming back with another armful of books. But the first I read was A Few Right Thinking Men followed immediately by A Decline in Prophets. And then I had to wait for the third, Miles off Course! I ordered that from the National Library bookshop. I was not going to risk missing out. Then I had to wait for the fourth, Paving the New Road, and now can’t wait for the fifth.

 
I admire fiction writers. The ability to translate imagination into an engrossing story is a true gift. I can’t do it, and wish I could. I comfort myself with the thought that there is no place for fiction in biography, which is where my writing heart lies, but I still wish I could come up with the perfect crime plot and create a readable story right out of my own head. Happily, lots of authors can, with varying degrees of talent, and I am thrilled that one of the most talented of the crime fiction cadre agreed to echat with me.

 
Sulari Gentill has ‘always wanted to be a writer, just as I’ve always wanted to be a movie star, an astronaut, an artist, a cowboy and a card shark. However it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve known I could be a writer’. Before she came to that realisation, she went ‘to university to study astrophysics and came out with a law degree. I’m not quite sure how it happened’, she told me. Funnily enough, ‘whilst practising law can be, on occasion, creative, they don’t like you to simply make things up. Writing fiction seemed liked a better way to indulge my growing fondness for fabrication’. After a few years of writing corporate contracts, Sulari decided she wanted to tell stories and started turning down legal positions so she could continue to write. She will never forget the ‘pure joy, hysterical giddy excitement and overwhelming relief’ when Pantera Press invited her to join their author list. ‘So now I live with my husband Michael, my boys, Edmund and Atticus, and several animals on a small farm in Batlow where I grow French Black Truffles and write... a lot.’



Sulari and Michael


Edmund and Atticus with their dogs

 
Truffles harvested by moonlight
As well as four published, and one about to be published, Rowland Sinclair mysteries, Sulari, under the pseudonym S.D. Gentil, has penned the fantasy adventure Hero Trilogy comprising Chasing Odysseus, Trying War and The Blood of Wolves (the latter was published earlier this year).
 
 
  
At Pages and Pages in Sydney outside the "Trying War" window
She has already received acclaim in her relatively short publishing career. Her first novel was shortlisted for the 2008 NSW Genre Fiction Award and she was shortlisted for Best First Book in our region for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She was commended in the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ 2008 Jim Hamilton Award, long-listed in the 2009 QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program, and offered a Varuna Fellowship. A Decline in Prophets won the Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Fiction 2012 and Paving the New Road was on the shortlist for the 2013 Award.
Sulari’s early success ‘was enough to keep me stubbornly refusing to do anything but write, though the bills were mounting and I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever be gainfully employed again’. The real world eventually intruded on her imaginary life and she is the ‘the current Chairman of the Murrumbidgee Catchment Management Authority, an independent government authority charged with natural resource management in the Murrumbidgee Catchment. For the most part I’m involved in governance, strategy and meetings… lots of meetings! I have from time to time been contracted by other organisations as a legal/business consultant and I sell the odd painting. I’m not sure my writing life is supported as much as it is indulged’.
A Few Right Thinking Men, set in Sydney in 1931, was Sulari’s first published piece. As Sulari tells it, ‘Rowland Sinclair is an artist and a gentleman. His suits are exquisitely tailored, but invariably covered in paint’. Authors often borrow from life and Sulari also draws and paints. She recently impressed her facebook friends with a charming Lindsay-esque watercolour (which made me immediately think of Rowland’s friend Edna) created in thanks for hospitality offered by the Booranga Writers’ Centre.


Sulari has also created the original images on which the covers of the B-format editions of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries were based.

From sketch book to cover art!

 
 


 


 

 

But back to Rowland. ‘A friend of the Left, and a son of the Right, he indulges his artistic passions supported by the old money to which he was born. At times it can be awkward but on the whole he manages rather well. Until his uncle is murdered. Suddenly he is no longer indifferent. As political tensions escalate, the nervous establishment gathers in secret fascist armies and Communism finds support amongst the unemployed masses. New South Wales balances precariously on the verge of a bloody revolution, and Rowland Sinclair stands between the increasingly belligerent extremes’. If I weren’t already a fan, I’d be desperately trying to get my hands on the books!

 
Sulari’s young adult fantasy series is very different and happened almost as a happy accident. She had met with her publishers, Pantera Press, to sign the contract for A Few Right Thinking Men. Pantera had been trawling the net and stumbled across a review of Chasing Odysseus which she had submitted to a manuscript award a few months beforehand. She hadn’t mentioned it and was surprised when they expressed interest in signing her up for that too. She was ecstatic. But it gets better! They assumed Chasing Odysseus was the first in a trilogy (the favoured form for fantasy fiction). ‘I hadn’t actually thought about Chasing Odysseus in a while let alone contemplated sequels, but being a new author and desperate to please, I didn’t want to tell them that. So I made up plots for the next two books on the spot. And then I had to write it!’
Given Sulari also had more Rowland Sinclairs on the literary equivalent of the drawing board, I wondered how she got into the different head spaces for crime and fantasy. ‘To be honest, I don’t think of my work in terms of genre. I just tell stories. Someone else decides where they should be placed on the bookshop shelves. In terms of head space, I just start talking to the characters. They take me where I need to go’. I naively thought there would be essential differences in writing for adults and young adults as these sorts of books seem totally different to me but Sulari is ‘not sure. I’m not, in any case, conscious of writing any differently based on that criterion. I think that the difference is more to do with the type of stories that young adults are drawn to. Young adulthood is the time in our lives when we are often at our most hopeful and courageous, when anything seems possible and we are oblivious to our own mortality; when the great deeds and passions of our own lives lie ahead. And so, I suspect, stories of magnificent sacrifice, grand epics, mad heroism and triumph resonate and speak particularly to young hearts. But that’s the nature of the story and not the writing’.
Where I got mixed up, I think, is writing style, which is different and Sulari admits that her ‘writing style does change, but to suit the story I’m telling rather than the market (which someone else decides anyway). If anything the language in the Hero Trilogy is more challenging than that in the Rowland Sinclair novels. Again that wasn’t a conscious choice—the words seem to find a natural rhythm according to the story I’m telling’. Although very different series, Sulari has a crossover in readerships. ‘People seem to come to my work through one and then give the other a go. I do have many readers (particularly men) who love both, and others who have a distinct favourite’.
Two of the authors I have already echatted with, Justin Sheedy and Owen Zupp, have taken an active role in marketing their self published works. I asked Sulari how she developed her marketing strategy to cater for the separate genres. ‘The reality is that I don’t publicise my own work. There are industry professionals who do that. I do throw my two-cents-worth (and it isn’t worth more than two cents) into the marketing campaigns but really, it’s my publishers who make all the decisions. They do have different approaches for each series, but I try not to get too involved in the ins and outs of that part of the business’. But she accepts she is an important part of the marketing process. ‘When I give an interview, speak on radio or a writer’s panel, I try to speak as sincerely and truthfully as possible. In my experience the truth is easier to remember!’ Her honesty, passion and sincerity are evident in this recent interview in The Book Club’s Meet the Author series http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s3826240.htm (Budding fiction writers might also be interested in this Australian Writers’ Centre podcast where Sulari talks about Paving the New Road and goes into more details about her writing practice http://www.writerscentre.com.au/podcast/sularigentill.htm)

 
Filming the Book Club interview
I firmly believe that to be a good writer you have to be a dedicated reader and was interested to discover the all time favourite book of an author who writers for both crime aficionados and young adults. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was a set novel when I was in school. I loved it despite that!’ Which just proves the power of that book. I confess I can barely touch anything I had to read for school. The exception is Pride and Prejudice, but I only came back to that after Colin Firth emerged from the pond. And that isn’t even in the book! (Oh dear, I’ve just discovered the youtube clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hasKmDr1yrA. Be still my beating heart.)
 
 
But back to Sulari. It would be a fun exercise to muse about how much To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced her life and literary career. A lawyer as key character/Sulari’s has/had a legal career; left leaning Rowland Sinclair who abhors injustice and is concerned social justice and equality/Sulari is the current chair of the Murrumbidgee Catchment Management Authority which ensures the protection and sustainable development of the environment through on-ground projects relating to biodiversity, culture, land and water and she has embraced a publisher whose trademarked motto is ‘good books doing good things’, is proudly philanthropic and regularly supports good causes such as Misfit Aid and Let’s Read. http://www.panterapress.com.au/donate/ I bet there are more points of potential influence but I am getting off the track.
Sulari told me she does not read books set in the same era as her fictional characters as she doesn’t want to obscure their voices so I was interested to know what she has piled up on her bedside table at the moment. ‘No books actually. There’s a half-drunk cup of coffee, a couple of notebooks, a manuscript I’m in the process of editing and one of my son’s boots (not sure what that’s doing there)’. They may not be on her bedside table, but she has a goodly pile stacked up elsewhere and she has some indispensable research resources. ‘Andrew Moore’s The Premier and the Secret Army, Michael Cathcart’s Defending the National Tuckshop, David Hickie’s The Prince and the Premier, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid and The Book of Etiquette by Lady Troubridge have all been great sources of inspiration and information’.

 



 
Sulari also relies on human research tools. ‘For the Rowland Sinclair mysteries it is my husband, Michael, who is an historian with a particular expertise in the era. For the Hero Trilogy I have my own personal classicist in the form of Dr. Alastair Blanshard who first directed me to read The Odyssey when we were both in our first year of Law School.’



On top of that, she has developed a good network with her fellow authors who she claims are ‘the greatest influence on my reading life. My reading list is happily crowded with the latest releases of my very talented friends’. Sulari especially enjoys a happy, supportive friendship with fellow members of Sisters in Crime, though I wonder if perhaps Sulari might briefly have become a Sister in Grime after planting out a box of spring bulbs gifted to her by Malla Nunn and Pema Newton! (Those bulbs have recently bloomed, and as Sulari walks around her garden she is ‘gloriously reminded of my crime-writing friends’.

 
Some of the fruits of that friendship box of bulbs
As well as being a key historical resource, Sulari’s husband was the catalyst for the creation of Rowland Sinclair. Michael ‘happens to be an English teacher and an historian. I have always used him shamelessly to edit and sanity-check my work. In the beginning, I would foist upon him manuscript after manuscript steeped in the mythology of the Ancient Greeks, filled with characters like Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus and Achilles. He would go through them dutifully, providing me with comment and correction until one day he broke down and demanded to know why I couldn’t “write something about people with names like Peter and Paul?”’ Sounds reasonable to me, but Sulari ignored him. ‘Initially at least’.
As any writer will tell you, ‘writing can be quite an isolating obsession. I spend a great deal of time in my own head, and whilst that’s fine for me, it is hard for those who live with me. A great part of the challenge in being a writer is to make your imaginary world work with the real world in which you actually live. And so I made a pragmatic decision to build a bridge towards the poor man who had married a lawyer and then found himself financially and otherwise tied to someone who refused to do much else but write. I looked for a story to which my husband could relate. Michael’s particular area of expertise is the extreme right-wing movements of the early 1930s in NSW, and so, conveniently, it is this context in which the Rowland Sinclair series is set. Rowland Sinclair introduced himself when I started poking about in the 1930s. I’m not really sure where exactly he came from—he just seemed to step out from between the pages of history.’ I for one am glad Rowland strode out of the pages of history into the pages of fiction. Thank you Michael!
Rowland may have been a convenient figment of Sulari’s imagination but he is grounded in fact. ‘By basing my books in this period, I rather cleverly ensured Michael would keep editing my novels—he cares far too much about the genuine history of the time to let me play with it unsupervised! I also procured for myself an invaluable source of information. It is one thing to read about a time, and another to have the opportunity to discuss it with someone who is an expert in the era. For me, a dialogue with an historian affords a richer understanding and fuels the kind of creative excitement that is fundamental to bringing history to life. And so there it is. My primary research technique was to marry an historian!’ Mmmm. Wish I’d thought of that. (Hope David isn’t reading this!) With Michael to guide—or goad—her to the facts, and with such a wonderful way of making history accessible through fiction, I asked Sulari if she would ever cross into non-fiction. An emphatic ‘No! I’m a story teller. I’ll leave non-fiction to the historians. I love history but I just can’t help making things up. My first instinct is to speculate. For me, historical facts are scaffolds for story’.
Having a mess of an office which has to double for business as well as creative use, I am fascinated by the writing spaces of other authors. I have seen plenty of photos on Sulari’s facebook page of her trying to write in airport or hotel lounges during her travels but I had an idea of an idyllic room on her property with picture window looking out over a garden when she is at home.


Idyllic garden in summer with Atticus and the dogs

 
Not the view from Sularis writing space I imagined, but beautiful nonetheless. A relaxing spot to sit and muse about what happens next.  

Not so. ‘I don’t have a usual writing place. I have a laptop and I write wherever I can. If I happen to be home that’s often in bed.’ I interrupt Sulari right there. I also camp out in bed when I am researching, taking notes, editing and reading for pleasure. I don’t actually write there as I don’t have a laptop but I used to back in the day when I borrowed the work laptop for uni essays. I always thought I was a bit of a rarity in favouring bed for my literary pursuits so am very pleased that I am not the only one. Even better, it seems we come from a long line of reclining scribblers. Michael Morpurgo was reading a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson and discovered a photograph of him propped up in bed on a pile of pillows, a writing book resting on his drawn-up knees. Michael promptly went up to his bedroom, piled up the pillows began to write. Very good to know! http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jul/04/writers-rooms-michael-morpurgo
But back to Sulari. Her bedroom is not her only writing space. She ‘could be anywhere’ when the muse strikes. ‘I have done some of my best writing in the transit lounges of airport—I know where to find the power outlets. I travel a great deal for my day job as well as for author events, so I also write a lot in hotel rooms. For me it doesn’t matter what’s around me because I’m inside my head anyway’.


Sulari on the promotional cake for the Snowy Mountains Readers Writers Festival. ‘A book-cake combination has to be good’ , she tells me. And I won’t argue with that!


Hotel room in Sydney, with harbour views, where Sulari swears she was eating pizza and writing! 

If she wins the lottery, she won’t be building a writer’s studio in a hurry. ‘As far as lottery upgrades go, I wouldn’t mind a lighter laptop with a longer battery life. My laptop is about six years old now, and though it’s served me well, it’s rather weighty for something one has to carry everywhere. It’d also be handy not to have to hunt for power outlets!’
With so much travel, and a passionate need to write, I wondered if Sulari structures her life to fit the writing in. ‘I’m afraid nothing about me is structured. I don’t have a strict regimen and to be honest, I don’t need discipline to write. The discipline for me is to stop writing occasionally to feed kids and dogs or to go to work. I try to write at least 1000 words each day. Some days that takes two hours, others days it takes ten. I don’t plot or plan, I just write, literally making it up as I go. I research as I write, when a question or need for historical detail comes up in the narrative. That way I can be sure I’m writing the story and not my research’.

 
Some of the hungry hoards who expect to be fed
As I eagerly await the imminent publication of Gentlemen Formerly Dressed, the fifth Rowland Sinclair novel, I mentioned my concern that the series might cease but Sulari assures me there are a lot more stories about Rowland and his friends to keep me reading happily for a good many years yet. ‘Don’t worry about the series ending anytime soon’, she tells me. ‘It won’t. I still haven’t managed to get out of 1933! The series will finish in 1945 when Rowland will be 40’. But I have to be patient. I alternate writing Rowland with something else. So at the moment I am working on another manuscript’. This means she can keep the characters fresh, and Sulari remains focussed and interested, and never bored with her literary creations. Happily, Rowland Sinclair is ‘never too far from my mind. I do have the spark for the next Rowland novel, in fact I have the spark for the next few books in the series (it’s highly combustible inside my head!), but for the moment I am elsewhere. Though I am looking forwarding to talking to Rowland again.’
  
 
 
After laying odds on one potential Second World War plotline, Sulari told me she had some good ideas but could not possibly divulge them, otherwise she would have to kill me. ‘Actually its more because I may change my mind about how and where exactly it’s all going to end.’ Even so, I am curious and am still debating whether to give into temptation and ask for details. If you read of my demise in the near future, please ensure Rowland Sinclair is on the case!
 
 Sulari’s favourite selfie... with the boys on the day A Few Right Thinking Men was released in 2010
If you would like to connect to Sulari, check out her website at http://www.sularigentill.com/ or send a facebook friendship request to her at https://www.facebook.com/SulariG You can discover more great books from an independent publisher who had the foresight to sign up a wonderful writer at http://www.panterapress.com.au/ as well as request the Pantera Press newsletter
If, like me, you can’t wait until the November release of Gentlemen Formerly Dressed, have a sneak preview of the first chapter at http://www.panterapress.com.au/files/media/GentlemenFormerlyDressed_bySulariGentill_FREECHAPTER.pdf
I am delighted Sulari Gentil agreed to be the subject of my sixth and final Echat With... for 2013. It is a joy to gain insight into the writing processes and imagination of one of my favourite authors.
It is with much sadness that the Echat With... series for 2013 has now ended. I have recently committed to a couple of very heavy writing deadlines (more of that soon) and have to clear the decks for them. I hope to resume the series sometime in 2014. 

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