September 2018

Angela Savage in conversation with Sulari Gentill

Photo of Sulari Gentill

Sri Lankan born Australian novelist Sulari Gentill is the author of the award-winning Rowland Sinclair series of historical crime fiction, the first of which, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2010, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. The ninth book in the series, All The Tears in China, will be released in January 2019. As SD Gentill, Sulari has also published The Hero Trilogy, a YA fantasy series based on a retelling of ancient Greek myths. In August 2018, she won the Australian Crime Writers Association’s Ned Kelly Award for her standalone novel, Crossing the Lines. Sulari was interviewed by Dr Angela Savage (a fellow writer and SADIRN member) the day after the awards night. In this interview, Sulari talks about ‘the deliciousness of writing’, reflecting on her creative choices, the relationship between authors and their characters, and the disturbing parallels between Australia in the 1930s and today.

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Angela Savage:  Sulari, congratulations on winning the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel. By my calculations, you are only the third woman, and the first woman of colour to win in this category since the awards began in 1995. For some time, you were the only South Asian diasporic writer working in the crime genre in Australia, and you’re still one of only two that we know of. How do you account for this?

Sulari Gentill: Well, I don’t account for it, to be honest, I’m not sure that I can. I did have a discussion with Malla Nunn, who’s another writer of colour who writes in this genre, about this some time ago and we were talking tongue in cheek about the fact that quite often writers of colour, particularly writers of South Asian origin, are too snobby to write anything but literature.

Angela: Well, I did wonder if it reflects a lack of prestige accorded to genre fiction over literary fiction in South Asian diasporic communities.

Sulari: Perhaps, but I don’t know whether people necessarily think in those terms. It did not occur to me, when I started writing that I was choosing to write genre fiction. I was just writing. I can’t imagine people sitting down and thinking, ‘I want to write. What am I going to write? I’m going to write something worthy.’ It seems to me a very artificial construct.

I do wonder whether it’s a feeling of where you will be welcomed. I know we had this discussion recently about the concept of “the other” and I do think that literature, and high literature in particular, whilst it is viewed as worthy, and award worthy, and grant worthy, and something to be aspired to, is also considered as the “other”. It’s not something you necessarily read when you’re tired or in need of comfort. You don’t necessarily read it to feel at home, indeed, quite often it’s the opposite—you read it when you want to be extended, or challenged or made to learn.

When you’re tired and you need comfort or a good laugh you turn to genre, and genre is family. So, perhaps it is that writers of colour in the Western context are more easily accepted into a writing form that is other, that is expected to be exotic and unfamiliar, rather than a writing form that is “family”.

Angela: I felt that this was a really interesting point when you made it. I’m curious to know whether you think it reflects the whiteness of the industry or the whiteness of the readership for genre fiction. That’s the other question. How diverse do you think the readership is based on your own fan-base?

Sulari: My fan-base is white, generally. I don’t go through and catalogue them but generally the people I’ve encountered tend to be older, white people, male and female.

Angela: And of course, we should point out that your characters in your Rowland Sinclair series are, for the most part, white.

Sulari: Well, someone did ask me about that and I said, ‘You know? It’s funny because I’ve never actually said they were white.’ In my head they are, but I think it’s interesting that we default to whiteness unless we’re told otherwise, because the alternative is “otherness”, and whiteness is home and family. I’m not saying that this is necessarily an issue about white people versus not-white people, but I think it is an issue of white culture and it’s so subliminal, so hidden, and passive, that I don’t know that anyone even considers it and thinks about it until they’re confronted with a writer like me who’s writing historical crime fiction and is a writer of colour.

I don’t escape either—I often default to white, too, despite being brown myself. I do remember the first time someone called me a writer of colour on a blog and I was a little bit surprised. I thought, ‘What is a WOC? Why are they calling me a WOC?’ It wasn’t that I didn’t know I was brown… I just didn’t realise that it put me into a subset.

Angela: I think that was probably Marisa Wikramanayake. She wrote on her blog, back in 2012, “The discovery of her work” (meaning you) “in this genre” (meaning crime fiction) “being shortlisted for and winning various awards, published by major publishers, all of this makes me feel far more optimistic and encouraged about the chances and representation and audiences that WOC [women of colour] authors in this country will have in future.” It’s a lovely compliment.

Sulari: It is lovely and I am delighted and gratified and proud that my career gives comfort to a generation of writers of colour coming up. When I started writing, it didn’t even occur to me and I don’t know whether that’s a particular naivety about me, or a blinkeredness, but it just didn’t occur.

Angela: That’s interesting because you’re published under what is a pseudonym, not your actual name.

Sulari: Yes, my real name is Sulari Goonetilleke, and Gentill is just a pen name. In my real life, I’m Sulari Goonetilleke and happily so. The reason I became Sulari Gentill is so trivial and mundane. It wasn’t a great statement to mask my writer of coloured-ness, or an attempt to fit in. It was just that I tend to write books with long titles, like Gentlemen Formerly Dressed, and I have a really long name and a book spine is only so long. So my publishers at the time said to me, ‘Look, Sulari, we’re going have to shorten your titles because we can’t fit your name and your titles on there.’ And, for me, it was more important that the book had the perfect title than my name be on the spine. So I took letters out of my name until it sounded okay and it fit. Gentill, is just Goonetilleke with several letters taken out.

Angela: You mentioned before that when you started out, being a writer of colour wasn’t a burning issue. How did you get started as a writer?

Sulari: I just picked up a pen and started—well, I actually picked up a laptop and started writing. I just thought I’d write a novel.

Angela: At what point was this in your life?

Sulari: Well, I’d been a lawyer for many years and I was working, quite successfully, as a lawyer but I was just one of those people who was a serial hobbyist. So, I’d pick up a hobby and I’d do it intensely for six months, until I mastered it, and then I’d move on to another one. I’ve quilted, and I’ve lead-lighted, and I’ve gardened—

Angela: And you’re a painter as well.

Sulari: Yes. I can weld too, and do all of those sort of things. And it was just along the same lines: I’d finished the welding course, I needed something to do, and I thought I’d write a novel. But it was one of those moments where you wander down the path thinking you’re meandering and you realize that you’ve found our way. So, this little frolic into writing turned out, very quickly, to be something that was the essence of me, and I realized very quickly that I wouldn’t stop. What also happened, unfortunately, was that I started losing interest in the law, and that’s a very dangerous place for a lawyer to be. So I wound back my practice and went completely to writing.

I tend to be an all or nothing person. I greatly admire writers who can work and write but I can’t. When I write, I’m so totally immersed in the writing that I can think of nothing else, which is why my books come out so quickly. But it also means that I’m useless for any other pastime.

Angela: Let’s talk about your creative choices. Your Rowland Sinclair novels are set in the 1930s and 40s, largely in Australia but not exclusively. Tell us about why you chose that period of Australian history?

Sulari: Well, that was really very pragmatic. My husband, Michael, happens to be a historian and his particular area of expertise is the extreme political movements of the 1930s in New South Wales. So, once I’d started writing, I was in that place where, you know, that first realization of writing, that first falling in love, and I was completely, completely in love. A writer’s head is a very seductive place. That it’s all very well for the writer of course–there’re people in there, and worlds, and we can disappear in there for days at a time—but it’s difficult for the people we live with. I was going into my head and I didn’t want to come out, but I was aware that it was difficult for Michael, because I was suddenly just not there mentally.

I knew I wasn’t ever going stop writing, and as I had no plans for getting rid of Michael, I had to make the two work. So I actively went looking for a subject that I could write about that would engage him and that would bring him into my head so that I would have to come out of it less. I basically grabbed his history thesis and I found a novel in it.

Angela: Right.

Sulari: And that turned into A Few Right Thinking Men. But once I started delving in to the 1930s, I realized what a rich source it was for fiction and I also saw immediately the parallels between the ’30s and what we’re going through today and that really, really interested me. I was intrigued to explore that notion of where we could have stopped it. At what point could we have stopped what was happening so that it didn’t end in World War II—the carnage that we saw—and the Holocaust. That’s what’s kept me writing the series. It’s a constant exploration of what happened then and the more I write, the more parallels are being drawn and the more we seem to be hurtling towards that same place.

Angela: The rise of the strong men, the rise of the right, the polarization–

Sulari: Even things as simple as the financial crisis, the segregation of society, the scapegoating of certain groups, the tension between women demanding more independence and the need for the right to stomp them back. All of those things. The seeming Teflon-ness of certain figures. And I’m really interested in the way people justified things and how they lived with things. On a completely personal level, I always wondered how people could have known—that Germans could have known—what was happening and done nothing. How you could live down the road from a concentration camp and not do anything? And then, you know, Australia started building its own concentration camps [“detention centers”] and I realized how that can happen, and how good people can be mentally battered in to complacency.

So, that interests me, that alarms me, and that motivates me to keep writing about it in the hope that, in some small way, even through reading my books, people might actually see what they aren’t willing to see. Sometimes people aren’t willing to see something if you tell it to them directly. But if you tell it to them in the way of a story, sometimes they stumble upon that truth themselves.

Angela: Absolutely. On the question of the story, you mentioned that you are a prolific writer. You produce one Rowland Sinclair novel a year. You’ve published eight in the series so far, with the ninth, All the Tears in China, set in Shanghai, due out in January 2019. The first, A Few Right Thinking Men, takes place in 1932, I think, and I remember you saying you thought you might set one per year, but I don’t think we’re out of ’35 yet, are we?

Sulari: Not yet.

Angela: So, what’s your vision for the series in terms of the story arc, do you actually have an end goal?

Sulari: The end will be 1945. My intention was to write Rowly through the ’30s, but having written Rowly through the buildup to war, it would be cowardly not to write him through the war. And I’m actually interested to see how he will survive the war and how he will go. So, my notion is that the series will finish in 1945 with the end of the war.

Angela: You hinted at something important about your process there, which is what scholars call the illusion of independent agency—

Sulari: Yes.

Angela: —which describes a certain kind of relationship between some authors and their characters. Rowland is very real to you, so when you say you want to see what he’s going to do—

Sulari: Well, look, I know that I’ve made him up. But for me, the joy of writing is allowing him to be real, is allowing my brain to carry that illusion. I think I could probably write without that illusion but I wouldn’t have as much fun. For me, that’s the indulgence and that’s the deliciousness of writing: it’s going into another world and letting him tell me his story rather than consciously believing I’m writing it. Of course, I am writing it, I know that. But, there are some delusions that humanity allows itself.

Angela: Which is actually the theme of Crossing the Lines, your standalone novel which has just won the Ned Kelly Award. Just unpack that a little bit. Tell us how that book came about.

Sulari: Well, I often get asked at writer’s festivals about my relationship with Rowland and people seem quite fascinated with the notion of a writer’s relationship with their protagonist. So, I started to think a little bit more about it and how it worked, and to me, Rowland feels quite real. It feels like I can almost see him, like he’s just out of my periphery. And I have a comfort that he’s there.

Angela: Your sons report that you talk to Rowland in the car.

Sulari: Yes, I guess I do. But at all times, I do know that’s something that I’ve allowed myself to believe, which is completely harmless if you don’t let it get in the way of life. But I always wondered where that line was: where things became difficult, where things became awkward, and where you started to lose your grip.

So Crossing the Lines is a book about two writers, each writing about the other. The narrative doesn’t so much flip, but weaves, so that you go from the perspective of one writer to the other and the two stories start to interweave and intertwine. In the beginning, they’re both independent writers who choose the other as a protagonist for particularly sensible reasons—they are literary constructs—and as they write, they get more and more embedded in each other and then all of a sudden they cross that line, and the imagined walks into reality.

Angela: I love the way you describe it as the weaving of stories, because the narrative is seamless. While I was reading it, I was thinking, ‘How is she doing this? I don’t even understand how she’s getting away with this.’ Technically, it’s an extraordinary achievement.

Sulari: Thank you. A couple of people have said that to me, but I wrote it exactly the way I write Rowly. I don’t plot. I wasn’t conscious of any technical artifice or skill while I was doing it. It just seemed to flow that way and I just moved from one head to another. Quite often, when I’m writing Rowly, I know that I’m plotting something in some part of my subconscious, but my subconscious has become good enough at fooling me in to thinking I’m just following Rowland around. It was very much like that, but I wanted to explore that whole notion and take it to its extreme end. A lot of writing is about taking something of your own experience to a more extreme point to see what will happen, because what we wouldn’t do as humans, we allow our characters to do.

Angela: That’s interesting because in a way you’re confessing that Crossing the Lines is more consciously motivated by your own experience, and it’s also the first time you’ve overtly written a woman of colour, Madeleine, who has a Sri Lankan background.

Sulari: Yes.

Angela: And I’ve just had the privilege of reading a short story of yours that features a woman whose ethnicity is not specified but whom you describe as, “Brown, overweight, and orthodontically uncorrected.” Is there a reason why it’s taken nearly ten years for South Asian characters to appear in your work and is it something that you see a momentum building around? Or are there other factors governing who appears?

Sulari: I think it was just those stories. So, the short piece that you were reading, it was because I was talking about what relatability and sympathy is in terms of the public.

Angela: And the different value placed on different women’s lives.

Sulari: Yes, exactly. So that was enabled by me using a protagonist who was not-white. I don’t actually actively go out to use a particular protagonist—they serve the story. I didn’t set out to write a white man in Rowland, but the story was served by having a protagonist who was. In Crossing the Lines, I didn’t decide that Madeleine was a woman of colour until you find out in the book that she’s a woman of colour, and part of it was about trying to explore that hegemonic default. And, as I mentioned before, I have it too. Unless someone tells me a character is black, I tend to assume they’re white, and I’m a woman of colour. I don’t necessarily judge it as a failing—it’s just interesting when thinking about why society and human beings do that.

I know that there has always got to be some kind of social structure. There’s always got to be some kind of distinguishing and categorization and stereotyping. That’s just how human beings work. Our minds probably wouldn’t be able to deal with the amount of information they have to process if we couldn’t categorize. The point at which it becomes difficult is when we start giving some people more benefits than others.

Angela: When we impose a hierarchy on them—of worth or value.

Sulari: Exactly. So in Crossing the Lines, when Edward decides that Madeleine is a woman of colour, he’s thinking about using it as a twist, and the conversation is, ‘Maybe it’s just not a twist, maybe it’s just what it is.’ What I wanted to play with was the reader having this image of Madeleine as a white woman, and the shock of suddenly realizing, ‘Hold on, this person we’ve been following all along is black, or is brown.’ … and asking questions of themselves: ‘Why did I think she was white? Why did I decide she was white when nothing in the narrative defined her as such?’ It wasn’t necessarily that I identified with her any more as a woman of colour than I would have identified with her as…

Angela: A writer?

Sulari: A writer.

Angela: Well, that’s interesting because my next question, which is a bit tongue in cheek, is to ask you whether you consider yourself primarily as a crime writer, a writer of historical fiction, a woman writer, or a writer of colour. Or, perhaps it’s easier to ask you, if you were being programmed at a writers’ festival, what sort of panels would you most like to appear on?

Sulari: I don’t love diversity panels for a number of reasons, primarily, because when someone is invited to appear on a diversity panel at a writers’ festival, they are being asked to talk about being brown, or not being white, as opposed to talking about their books. I’m a professional and if I go to a writers’ festival I want to talk about my books. I want to talk about art, and I want to talk about literature, and I want to talk about other people’s books. I do not want to talk about the colour of my skin.

So I have a really ambiguous relationship with diversity panels. I understand the good intentions behind them. But I don’t think it serves those writers being asked to appear, particularly if that’s all they are being asked to appear as.

If you really want to talk about diversity, it should be diverse panels across the board.

Angela: On topics such as crime fiction, historical fiction…

Sulari: Exactly, exactly. It’s a bit like having women’s panels. Women crime writers. Here are the men, here are the real crime writers, and here is a subset, the women. I know that’s not the intention, I know these panels are put together with the best of intentions and with a notion of really highlighting writers who are there. But I was talking to some of my fellow panellists on a diversity panel recently and some of them had not appeared on a panel that wasn’t about diversity, ever. And it was my first diversity panel.

Angela: First and last, by the sounds of it?

Sulari: Well, my fellow panellists were envious that I got to go on other panels and talk about my books. It’s one of those double-edged swords. You don’t want people to pretend that you’re white, but you don’t want being brown to be the biggest thing about your writing. I love appearing on crime panels. I find crime writers are generous, and they’re kind, and they’re supportive, and tend to also know each other’s work. Combined, these elements make good panels, supporting interesting conversations.

I’m quite happy to talk about who I am as a person, quite happy to talk about being a brown person, but I don’t know that simply being brown is enough for a panel.

Angela: I did want to ask about the Ned Kelly Award, or prizes in general, because the Ned Kelly Award is only your latest accolade. You won the 2012 Sisters in Crime Davitt Award, which is awarded to women’s crime writing, for Best Adult Novel for A Decline in Prophets, the second novel in the Rowland Sinclair series, too. How significant are these awards for you?

Sulari: In terms of how I feel about my own writing, Crossing the Lines was the same book a couple of days ago before it won the Ned Kelly. The words don’t change, just perhaps how much attention is given to them.

Angela: And we should also note, for the record, that you had a lot of trouble finding a publisher for that book.

Sulari: In as much as I was discouraged from writing it in the first place, I think. People were keen for me to write more Rowly, or write something that was very similar to Rowly, because of its reasonable commercial success and something for which I am already “branded”. And, of course, the writing community likes to categorize writers, and so you fall into boxes.

Angela: Do you think that’s more the publishing industry or the writing community? Or the reading community?

Sulari: It’s really hard to tell. The pressure is to keep doing what you’re doing, or what they think you should be doing.

Angela: And not to deviate.

Sulari: Yes. It probably is the publishing industry, and I can understand that. They’ve spent a lot of money building your brand as a certain kind of writer and then you decide you want to write something else. It must be irritating. It’s like the Volkswagen who suddenly wants to be a Jeep. In the end, I wrote Crossing the Lines because I felt compelled to write it despite the advice to the contrary. Then I just happened to show it to my American publisher—more because they asked what I was working on than because I was actually submitting it—and they signed it within 24 hours.

Once that happened, things changed, there was interest here and eventually I signed the ANZ rights to my Australian publisher, Pantera.

Angela: So, does this prize make you feel vindicated?

Sulari: Oh, yes. Very vindicated.

Angela: For sticking it out?

Sulari: Yes. There’s a kind of embarrassment, particularly in Australia, associated with saying “I can do this”. The potential for humiliation is great. It’s terrifying. You’re plagued with the notion that perhaps you’ve overreached, perhaps the world is laughing at your arrogance, until you find someone who believes in that work as much as you do. It’s a lot easier to just keep doing what’s expected because there is a mechanism of support, both practical and emotional, for that.

Having been actively discouraged from writing outside of my established brand, and having overcome the consequent self-doubt to do it anyway—to take that chance— I’m glad and relieved and delighted that this worked out. Awards for a novel that deviates from your stock-in-trade do give you chance to go into other fields. Already I’m being talked to about writing more of this kind of book, which is I suppose literary crime.

Angela: It’s been called metafiction.

Sulari: Yes, metafiction and what’s the other one?—Post-modern. Honestly, Angela, I write the story I want to tell, as it appears to me, —while the categorization is done by the industry. In the Rowly series, every book is quite different, even though they have the same characters.

My American audience seem more comfortable with that. They seem to like that each book from the Rowly series is different in format: one is almost a cosy, another a political thriller…

Angela: Some have a darker edge.

Sulari: Yes, they do. My US publishers highlight the diversity in the structure of the different books in the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries. But not so much here where it’s easier to market when everything’s the same.

Angela: Absolutely. It goes back to that point you were making before about our obsession with categorization.

Sulari: Yes, well, the other thing about prizes is that, like a lot of writers, I suffer from imposter syndrome. I suffer from this notion that I’m not really meant to be here, everybody here is better than me and I’ve slipped in somehow when no one was looking. Things like prizes actually help you feel stronger against the vagaries of imposter syndrome. And I understand how imposter syndrome works so I try to ignore it, but the fact is that it still stalks most of us at various times. Where it haunts us most is when we’re trying to do something new.

Angela: Yes. At the same time, you’re famous for saying—and I often quote you on this—that awards are not a meritocracy.

Sulari: Not necessarily. My theory with awards is that a group of people, [judging] panels, choose to shine a light on someone’s work. That’s a show of support, but it’s doesn’t necessarily mean that your book is better than every other book on the shortlist or published that year. It just means that, at the time, you were lucky enough to be the one they chose to shine the light on. And I’m grateful for that, I’m honored by that, but I do not ever rest on that.

Angela: Nicely put. Well, my last question is simply what’s on the horizon for you?

Sulari: I am writing two books at the moment.

Angela: Of course you are.

Sulari: One is a standalone thriller which was inspired by the politics of today. It’s a contemporary novel and I was intrigued by—I don’t want to throw any spoilers in—but I was intrigued with how certain movements were playing out and I wanted to take them to their natural end.

Angela: Social movements?

Sulari: Yes. And the other one concerns mythology.

Angela: Right.

Sulari: Not Greek mythology, this one is Old Testament. And it’s an indulgence because I don’t know that there’s a huge market for that kind of book. But it’s a story that occurred to me, that wanted to be written and so I’ll write it. It’s always lovely when someone wants to publish your work, but sometimes you just need to write the story because the story’s there, whether or not it actually finds a place in your lifetime. I can always leave it to my sons. They’ll need something. Here’s a manuscript…

Angela: Take it out of the desk drawer.

Sulari: Indeed. Here’s your inheritance boys. Good luck!