Colin Cotterill is the author of fifteen books in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. His fiction has won a Dilys Award and a CWA Dagger in the Library. He lives in Chumphon, Thailand, with his wife and a number of deranged dogs. His latest novel is The Motion Picture Teller and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Motion Picture Teller?
Back in the nineties I was approached by a fledgling movie production company in Bangkok to write screenplays to add to their portfolio. One of these I called Bangkok 2010. I was living in Thailand, and my research for this movie took me into areas I’d never seen and introduced me to the underbelly of Thai suburban life. It encouraged me to walk down seedy alleyways and interview street people. It re-educated me and helped me see Thailand from a different perspective. Nothing came of the movie, but the story continued to fascinate me, and I decided to turn it into a novel with a cinematic backdrop. Thus, we arrive at The Motion Picture Teller, an unrequited love story about a poor Thai postman and a beautiful movie star. It delved into the lives of people whose dreams hold them together, whose only hopes are that one day they might meet someone who can change their lives.
Are Supot, Ali, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
No. Actually ‘yes’ but it’s complicated.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
It was a puzzle. I had to rewrite a movie as a novel. Where do I start? My advantage was that I was already a visual animal. When I was writing my novels, I could see the scenes in the panorama of my red wine saturated imagination. I was in the cinema with popcorn and Coke. All I had to do was sit back in the director chair and describe what I was seeing. In the original 2010, I suppose I was writing a dystopian movie with cuts to two Thai guys watching it in a video store. All I had to do here was change the POV. I couldn’t bring myself to do away with the movie scenes because they were as much a character of the story as my protagonists. So we switch back and forth from the video store to the future, but the narrative becomes more colloquial. During the editorial process, I fought hard for nothing to be cut or cosmetically altered because I was already committed to the characters.
Supot hates his job with the Royal Thai Postal Service. And he knows that he is neither suited for nor very good at it. What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve had jobs I should have hated. I worked a red tag body waste hospital laundry, I delivered newspapers on miserable rainy mornings stalked by hopeful pedophiles, I endured two months of summer campery taking care of obnoxious rich kids I could happily have strangled. But all of these, I decided, contributed to my development as a human. The one role I cannot forgive myself for accepting is that of an air-conditioner door-to-door salesman in blustery cold England. With the frost crystallizing upon my eyebrows, I stood on doorsteps reciting an incredible spiel about how, within the next decade, global warming would turn Slough into a tropical wasteland and the heat would be unbearable without A/C. It’s not that I said it that irks me, but that I was able to convince several poor, unsuspecting housewives to dip into the family savings and shroud their already chilly houses with even colder air.
Both Supot and Ali believe that Bangkok 2010 is the best Thai film ever made, but it doesn’t really exist. Do you have a favorite Thai film?
I have sat through a number of Thai films. Some I have enjoyed. On many occasions, I wished that Thai directors felt less of a need to write their own screenplays. I’m sure talented writers look upon the results with regrets. One of the movies that linger in my memory is Mah Nakhorn (Citizen Dog). It’s quirky enough to make me want to watch it again.
Supot and Ali are also both big Hollywood film lovers. What is your favorite Hollywood film?
Ooh. Big question. My first response would be to cite movies that do what erstwhile Hollywood had hoped to achieve, to move people, not as individuals but as an audience. I love nothing more than to be swept up in a cinematic tidal wave, hundreds of people laughing, groaning, gasping in unison. The few times I felt that surge was in the originals of Rocky, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones. Matinee, surrounded by ecstatic pre-teens. Exhausted by lunchtime.
On a more personal level I never tire of watching Peter Sellers’ Being There.
If The Motion Picture Teller were going to be adapted into a film, who would be your dream cast?
As all of my characters are Thai, my dream cast wouldn’t register on the radar of L.A. I challenge you all to name me four famous Thai actors. There is a small, almost imperceptible bump in Asian media popularity these days. The danger is in recruiting actors from ‘any’ Asian country or of any Asian heritage, to portray my characters in film. I have long championed the ageing Jackie Chan to play my protagonist Dr. Siri in the Coroner’s Lunch, series. Would it be a sell-out? Would I be merely attempting to rake in the bucks old Jackie might glean us? You bet your stainless steel wok it would. There are fine Thai and Lao actors who would do my characters justice, but would they bring in the bucks? Sorry.
Most of your novels are set in Southeast Asia. What is it about this locale that you find so compelling and keeps you returning to it for settings in your work?
Firstly, I would argue that Southeast Asia as a ‘locale’ is no more homogenous than the Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize bloc. I would suggest that the inhabitants of these countries would balk at the idea that they shared common cultures. When you cross the border from Thailand to Laos, you enter a different time warp. When you step off the plane in Vietnam, you are overwhelmed by history. I’ve been in Thailand for over twenty years with shorter stints in Laos and Japan. When I go back to England, I feel I’ve changed. I somehow relate more to the Asians I see on public transport than I do the English. My adopted countries have a slower pace and a higher tolerance than those in Europe. I live in a small fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand, and it affords me a feeling of peace. I hope the characters I write are able to convey that sense to my readers.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
And here we arrive at my confession. I know it is a cardinal sin to admit this, particularly to a librarian, but I am not much of a reader. On my nightstand, there are earplugs and a glass of water for my teeth. I believe the point of going to bed is to sleep. But neither are there half-read books on my desk, beside the TV, or behind the toilet. I like to help out aspiring writers by blurbing their books, but even so, I rarely make it past the first chapter. I’m easily distracted. The last book I read for pleasure was Kathy Reichs’ Cross Bones and that was only because she’s a friend. Again, I’m sorry.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
It all goes downhill from here. I wonder if I can even name five authors, read or otherwise. You might want to delete this and the next ten questions. No, it’s okay. I’ll do it.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
OK, temporary respite. I did read books when I was young. I recall reading by torchlight beneath the bed covers. I don’t know why I couldn’t read by daylight. It was as if I was ashamed to be caught with my nose in a book. In those undercover nights I got through White Fang, Black Beauty and The Swiss Family Robinson. I reread Spike Milligan’s Puckoon half a dozen times. I liked the feeling of being transported on my magic bed to other places and times. Not sure what traumatic event rocked my reading world. I barely get through five books of fiction a year. When I find time I tend to read non-fiction. I do a lot of my angry reading from computer screens. I need to make up for all those years at school when I was less interested in studying and more in playing sports and chasing girls.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
I assume you’re referring to my black and white Naturist magazine collection. I’d save up my newspaper route income to buy magazines at our local secondhand bookshop. I’d mostly stock up on Mad magazines and Spider Man comics but those nudie mags kept getting stuck between the pages somehow. I had a secret compartment under my desk. It was my first attempt at functional carpentry. In fact, I doubt I needed to hide them. My mum would have been delighted to see she was raising a red-blooded, high-sperm-count male child.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Ah, a neat segue back to the visual arts. I think the birth of the TV mini-series and streaming services has opened up the media to an astounding array of quality writing and dramatic performances. TV stopped being cinema’s little sister and is now running the family. I gorged on Sorkin, spent sleepless nights watching The Wire, was constantly outthought by Mr. Robot, and even today can’t explain why I’m unable to turn off Better Call Saul. My addiction has been cumulative. I had grown up with two TV channels, and I was too young and naïve to realize how awful most of the programs were. We tolerated them because we were honoured to be witness to the magical invention called television. But now I can abandon a show that disappoints me (and there is no end to them) and discover new talent at the click of a remote. In the eighties and nineties, I often heard myself utter "I could have written that." I don’t say that so much now. (Although I could have written most of the CSI spinoffs.)
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
When I opened my eyes this morning, the first thing I saw was a cherry red sun breaking out of its horizon, skimming across the South China Sea. The dogs were already downstairs glaring into their empty bowls. We jogged along the sand together, none of us puppies anymore. On the way back we were met by my wife, the crust of sleep still in her eyes. We said ‘good morning’ and kissed. Pink was jealous, as always. We ate, I made carrot juice. Stuff happened, and suddenly it was evening. The dogs were downstairs glaring into their empty bowls. We jogged along the sand, none of us puppies anymore. What was the question again?
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
"Here at Netflix we’d do anything, pay any amount to secure the rights of your marvelous series. Just give us a number and we’ll double it. OK?"
"I’ll think about it."
What are you working on now?
Nothing to do with writing I’m afraid. I still get the odd illustration request. I’m not a particularly good artist, but I have a small following. On the pedagogical front, we set up two schools for the children of itinerant Burmese workers, and we’re about to hit the 600 mark on our street dog spaying project. I have a condo booked in heaven. It doesn’t look like much, but it keeps us…off the streets. Last week I started to write an autobiography which contained the odd factual account but is otherwise full of lies. It’s been done before but never with such blatant honesty.