Thursday, January 14, 2021

Reincarnated theosophists and falling pianos: an interview with Sulari Gentill

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the second instalment of our 9mm interview series for 2021 - we're back on a regular track now after almost a year's hiatus. 

This author interview series has now been running for over a decade (though perhaps we shouldn't really count the last year), and today marks the 214th overall edition. Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome award-winning historical mystery writer Sulari Gentill to Crime Watch. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Zambia and Australia, Sulari is the author of the Rowland Sinclair series of historical mysteries, where a gentleman artist moonlights as an amateur sleuth in 1930s Australia as the world is on the verge of war. The first in the series, A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN (2010) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and collectively the novels in the series (ten and counting) have won the Davitt Award and been shortlisted multiple times for several other awards including the Ned Kelly Awards and Australian Book Industry Awards. 

In 2018 Sulari, who studied astrophysics and worked as a corporate lawyer before becoming a novelist,  won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel for Crossing the Lines, a post-modern standalone novel that begins with a murder but becomes more about the act of creation and writing itself. 

After living in multiple countries as a child, Sulari now lives on a small farm in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, where she and her family (an historian husband and two sons) grow French black truffles and raise miniature cattle. As well as being widely available in Australia, where they are published by Pantera Press, Sulari's Rowly Sinclair historical mysteries are published in North America by Poisoned Pen Press and in the UK and Commonwealth by Oldcastle Books. 

But for now, Sulari Gentill becomes the latest storyteller to stare down the barrel of 9mm. 


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
There are many with whom I’ve been enamoured at different times in my life - Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, Gott’s Will Power, and Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs to name a few. But regardless of who the latest happens to be, there has always been, and is, Poirot.

2. What is the first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
The first book I remember reading was Sleeping Beauty. My mother, worn down by my insatiable requests that she read to me, gave me the book and a pencil, telling me to underline the words I couldn’t read myself. I was three years old but, for some reason, it remains clear in my memory (though I’m not sure I could tell you what I did yesterday). I even remember the first word I underlined… marvelling at how long it was, and how strange those letters looked together. “Beautiful” - I expect the story began along the lines of “Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess/queen/kingdom…” 

Of course, I underlined many more words in that poor book—there were probably more words underlined than not—but I don’t remember my mother reading to me after that. Perhaps she didn’t need to. I still love Sleeping Beauty, not so much for the story itself, but because, for me, it served as a kind of Rosetta stone which made the printed page decipherable thereafter.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written if anything – unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?’
Before A Few Right Thinking Men, I wrote Chasing Odysseus - a fantasy inspired by the classics and set in the ancient world, a new story written into Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. At the time A Few Right Thinking Men was released, it was unpublished, but has since become the first book of The Hero Trilogy, which was published in Australia a few years ago. The Hero books are startlingly different from the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, not only in genre but in style and readership. As much as I consider myself a crime writer first and foremost, I do enjoy having a literary alter ego.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I like to make things. I paint, I sculpt and I garden. Occasionally I build (in a very minor way). I love meeting people on tour, having conversations with readers and colleagues, talking deep into the night about books and the craft of producing them. But when I’m not on tour, I’m a bit of a hermit who likes hanging out with her dogs.

5. What is the one thing that visitors to your hometown should do that isn’t in the tourist brochures or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider.
Ha! I live in a tiny town in the mountains of New South Wales. I doubt anything about it has made it into a tourist brochure, so I have much from which to select! In Spring the foothills are bedecked with apple and cherry blossom, in summer you could eat freshly picked cherries by a mountain creek. Our Autumn colour is truly magnificent and in Winter you could come truffle hunting in the snow. But, most of all, I would recommend just looking up at night, any time of the year. Here, in the high country, away from the lights of the city, the Southern night sky is at its most glorious. Breath-taking in its immensity, as it stretches over you and through time. Find the Southern Cross and know that for at least sixty thousand years, people have been looking the universe from here.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Firstly, I’m not sure my life would make a particularly exciting movie. But assuming the script writers have “adapted” The Sulari Gentill Story for the screen (by inserting action sequences, a troubled past and the occasional werewolf) then, Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires, Cleverman, The Secret Life of Us). I think Ms Mailman could do me justice… in fact, I think she would improve me a fair bit.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
I don’t really have favourites, but if I were to choose one book by which to be remembered as a writer, it would be Crossing the Lines (released as After She Wrote Him in the United States). Crossing the Lines won me the Ned Kelly Award and has become my bestselling book, but while both those things are terrific, the reason it is special is not to do with either. I have heard it said that all novelists are writing variations of a few basic plot lines, new conglomerations of things that have been written before. That’s particularly true of genres, which operate under well-established tropes. Crossing the Lines defies that, twists it. It is novel that is truly, well… novel - in its subject and its structure. It deconstructs the crime novel while paying tribute to it. I’m not sure I’ll ever have such a revolutionary idea again. I think of Crossing the Lines as my love letter to writing itself.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I was convinced I was going to die. Because surely nobody can be that happy without going into serious Karmic debt! I felt like I’d stolen something… it was only a matter of time before I got caught will my ill-gained happiness, my insane good luck. I recall that I had to drive to Balranald the following day - about 500km away - for a board meeting (I was still a lawyer then) and I was certain I would meet my end in some kind of car accident. So, my celebration was mostly about trying not die. I eventually got used to the idea that I was allowed to be this happy and live, but a little part of me is still watching for falling pianos.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author even or literary festival?
I have met not just one, but two, separate and unrelated readers who were convinced they were the reincarnation of Annie Bessant, the famous Theosophist, and that, in A Decline in Prophets, I was writing about their life (or past life). They considered me their biographer. Unfortunately, I met them at different events, or else I would have introduced them to each other.

Thank you Sulari, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can read more about Sulari Gentill and her storytelling at her website, and follow her on Twitter. 

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