Interview With an Author: Sulari Gentill

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Jacqueline Holland and her latest novel, The Mystery Writer
Photo of author: Edmund Blenkins

After setting out to study astrophysics, graduating in law and then abandoning her legal career to write books, Sulari Gentill now grows French black truffles on her farm in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains of Australia. Her latest novel is The Mystery Writer and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Mystery Writer?

I'm not sure that inspired is the right word. It's more a curiosity, an idle wondering about random things I observe. For the Mystery Writer it was public image, canceling and conspiracy theories, prejudice, paranoia, large scale manipulation, alternate facts, and belonging. That's a lot, I know but I'll try and string my process (such as it is) together.

In recent years, conspiracy theories have found readerships that are the envy of most writers. Not only are these fandoms vast and devoted, they seem to be willing to accept fictional leaps and plots with which few novelists would be allowed to get away. These narratives are allowed to run wild, mixing genres and inviting the reader to be the hero. The only catch is that the authors can take no personal credit for the creativity involved.

I have often wondered about these generally anonymous authors: what is their motivation? Is seeing a story "catch" reward enough? What if it isn't? Could there be a deeper actual conspiracy hidden beneath the mad theories.

Into that, I threw my musings about public image, and the part it plays in commercial success and also canceling, and what happens to those who've been canceled. Where do they go? What do they do? Is there a way back to public favour, and what is the price of readmittance.

And, of course, gun culture. I've toured the US a couple of times, and to be honest, I've never seen anyone carrying (I was in bookshops mostly), but what I did notice was that many Americans couldn't understand why even the thought that someone might be carrying was so unnerving to Australians. And generally speaking, it is. We like to think that staying out of arm's reach is enough to keep us from getting killed. Many Americans find that absurd, but I couldn't really write Australians, even ones who had been living in the US, without reference to that fundamental difference in the way we moved about the world.

During the height of the COVID-19 epidemic, doomsday prepping seemed to hit the mainstream for a while, and the thought processes behind it caught my interest, particularly the competitive element of it. I began to wonder if prepping was really about survival or whether it was just another hobby, like quilting or sport.

Structurally, I was interested in echoing the notion of viewing the world through a story construct so that everything, however remote, was somehow related to an accepted theory or suspicion, allowing the narrative to blow up, to become bigger and all-encompassing as many conspiracy theories do. In the middle of this, there is a young writer trying to find her way, a brother wracked with guilt over an adolescent failing, and a sane man in an apparently insane family.

Reading over what I've just written, I recognize that this is actually quite a random collection of ideas. How they come together in a Pantser's brain is difficult to define. Remember, I don't plot, so the narrative seems to meander through whatever is on my mind of its own, I accord. I seem to have taken these wonderings, put them in a mental cocktail shaker, and shaken… maybe stirred as well. And voila: The Mystery Writer!

Are Theo, Gus, Mac, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Not really. My characters tend to be conglomerates of traits and characteristics I have observed and gathered for later use. None of the people I've made up are copies of anybody that has actually existed, but I suppose, by the same token, each of my characters is inspired by several people. They are a unique combination into which the story breathes life, and who consequently change and grow in response to the situation into which the narrative plunges them.

How did the novel evolve and change as you all wrote and revised it? Are there any characters, scenes, or stories that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The novel became darker and more complicated as I wrote because real life was also becoming darker and more complicated (I started this novel as Covid was emerging), But there weren't any scenes or characters lost in the process. Because I am a Pantser (I write by the seat of my pants), there is a great deal of flexibility in my process to bring in new ideas or themes without disrupting some pre-planned narrative (because there is no pre-planned narrative). Also, I tend to be a one-draft writer (to me, once I put down the words, that's the way it happened, and it's very hard to conceive of an alternative), so there isn't the repeated cutting and adding some writers employ. I choose my words carefully and only write exactly what I mean so I don't rewrite a great deal. That doesn't mean that I don't ever wonder if there is something that I might have expressed better or done better—but that's an endless cycle, and part of being a writer is being able to allow a book to be and fly on its own.

What drew you to set the novel primarily in Lawrence, Kansas?

As with the Woman in the Library, when I used a friend who'd lived in Boston to advise me on setting, I used a friend who'd lived in Kansas to do the same. It was the same friend, actually. I asked him for an American town he could "fact check" for me and he suggested Lawrence, Kansas. I did my own research from Australia and checked in with Larry regularly to make sure that the Lawrence in my head looked as much like the real Lawrence as possible.

Have you ever lived in or visited Lawrence? If so, do you have any favorite places? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss?

No, I haven't, yet. But when I do, I'd like to visit The Raven Bookstore, The Bourgeoise Pig, and the Stull Cemetery; I'd like to walk along the banks of the Kaw and the Burroughs trail and go to a Jayhawks game.

Similar questions for your home in/near the Snowy Mountains in Australia. Do you have any favorite places (possibly in Canberra or Melbourne)? A place someone visiting Australia should not miss?

I live in a small town in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, which is part of what is known as the Great Dividing Range. We are the gateway to the High Country, where three ancient rivers begin as trickles of snowmelt. The high plains are the home of kangaroos and dingoes, wedge-tailed eagles, and herds of wild brumbies, they are dotted with historic huts built to provide shelter to travelers caught in vagueries of mountain weather. The skies here are broad, and at night, they are a breathtaking glimpse of the universe. And the people are generally friendly and laid back and, in my experience, kind.

Conspiracy theories and the people who believe in them are central to the plot of The Mystery Writer. How familiar were you with conspiracy theories prior to writing your novel? Did you have to do a bit of research? How far "down the rabbit hole" did you go?

It depends on what you consider a conspiracy theory. I wasn't particularly familiar with the kind of conspiracy theories that have been given life by social media in recent years, but conspiracy theories generally have always been around… they've been called rumours or legends (e.g., Jack the Ripper was a member of the Royal Family which was why he was never caught) I think the difference is their reach, the sheer number of people who are now willing to believe and to structure other parts of their life around that belief. My research was not so much about any particular conspiracy theory but to gauge the limits of credibility with respect to these theories. What I discovered was that there are no limits. Whatever absurd idea I could come up with, there was a more absurd idea, complete with believers and promoters out there already.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I was quite interested in the correlation between conspiracy theories and anger. The ones that really take off seem to inspire some kind of resistance or fight. There doesn't seem to be any benign theories that don't need adherents to form some kind of fifth column. It interests me because that's the way the story works as well… readers do need a reason to care, even about a fictional world.

Were there any theories you found plausible? What was the most fantastic or ridiculous theory you encountered?

The most fantastic—I think lizard people will take some beating.

The most plausible—I'm not sure. I went into these sites looking for absurd theories so I'm not sure I was ever in a mindset to fairly consider plausibility, but there are probably things that I have accepted throughout my life of questionable rational provenance. For many years, I believed a bearded man in a red suit would descend the chimney and leave presents; I believed this with all my heart even though my house didn't have a chimney and there were rarely any presents left.

What's currently on your nightstand?

My glasses, various notebooks, my laptop and Dervla McTiernan’s What Happened to Nina.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Agatha Christie
Oscar Wilde
Harper Lee
David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Walter Moseley

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My diary.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

If I told you I'd have to stop pretending I've read it….

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

No, I can't, to be honest… I take my time in bookstores. I may pick up a book for its cover, but I check the jacket blurb, sometimes even the first page before I commit.

Is there a book that changed your life?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It's the reason I became a lawyer; it's what I aspire to as a writer. Did I mention that my son is named Atticus?

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

What's Eating Gilbert Grape?—somehow, I missed it when it first came out, so I only recently caught it on a streaming service. And I loved it. The script was moving, and the performances poignant. There's a singer-songwriter I've just come across on Instagram called Livingston, and he's brilliant. His lyrics are poetry, and his voice just blows me away.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My idea of THE perfect day is in midwinter when the world outside is blanketed with snow, but the house is warm because my boys have lit the fires before heading out to ski or toboggan. It's a writing day, and the words are coming quickly and in the right order, and the people in my head are speaking clearly. There is coffee at my elbow, dogs asleep by my feet, and nothing to do but write. Perfect.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked but never have been?

I'd love to be asked about the people who make it possible for me to write, the relationships that make a writer's life possible. Because sometimes it feels like I'm being allowed to take all the bows when there is literally a village of people who help me do what I do.

What is your answer?

I'd talk about my wonderful publishers, whom I trust implicitly and who have had my back when life has made writing hard, and who, by dealing with all the aspects of bookmaking outside the writing, leave me free to just tell the story. My amazing sweary editor lets me know how much she loves my work by cursing. Seriously. I wouldn't be confident of a book she didn't swear about. My family and friends have taken having a writer in their midst in their stride… it's not always easy. Writing is sometimes just a socially accepted lunacy, and your nearest and dearest must learn to live with you, conversing with imaginary people, researching poisons and other nefarious subjects, and waking in the middle of the night to tap out a scene. They must understand that your mind will often be somewhere else. My colleagues in the writing community in whose company I have always felt truly privileged. And finally, the readers who trust me to tell the story, who allow the people I make up into their imaginations, and who come with me into the tale.

What are you working on now?

My next release—a mystery thriller called Three Found Dead. It's a new story set on the Orient Express, which uses the train's famous literary history as a kind of character in itself in a discussion of journeys, loyalty, hope, and, of course, murder.

Book cover of The mystery writer : a novel
The Mystery Writer: A Novel
Gentill, Sulari