Colin Cotterill left Wimbledon many years ago to travel, acquired Australian citizenship along the way, before settling in Thailand where he is involved with the Books For Laos project and child abuse charities, which you can read about on his web-site http://www.colincotterill.com. His seventh in the Dr Siri series, Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, published last year (with a paperback due from Quercus in April 2011) threatened to be his last. He has, though, been through a renaissance with not only an eighth Dr Siri novel due, and has also started a new series set in his current abode. He talked to Shots about Killed At The Whim Of A Hat. Thanks to Nicci Praca at Quercus for arranging it.
CREDIT: ROY HAMRIC
Colin Cotterill, thanks for talking to Shots. Killed At The Whim Of A Hat to be published in March 2011 by Quercus in the UK begins a new series. Previously you’ve had the elderly male coroner, Dr Siri Paiboun as your protagonist but now you’ve reversed things, with Jimm Juree, a feisty young female reporter. And you’ve changed your scene from Laos to Thailand. Why have you made those changes?
A change is as good as a rest. I always thought I’d coined that phase but I saw footage of Benjamin Disraeli using it on YouTube. Yet it still holds true in this millennium. Dr Siri and his team write their own stories these days and they often don’t let me get a word in. You can know characters too well to the point that writing them gives you fewer challenges. You know how they’re going to react and you’ve got the Dr. Siri fan club members who know how they’re going to react. So trying something new just pisses people off. I needed a break from 1970s Laos and a new challenge. Four years ago we moved to the south of Thailand to a little fishing village in the middle of nowhere. ‘Ha Ha’, I thought. ‘Now there’s a challenge. I’ll set my new series here in a place that’s so dull the local police station doesn’t have a cell. I’ll make it contemporary so I can do all my research on-line and I’ll make the protagonist a feisty young female reporter who happens to be the same age and nationality as my wife. I’ll throw in my dogs and my neighbours and cast them into turmoil by inventing heinous crimes that turn their lives upside down. All being well I might not even need to get out of bed at all.
I was pleased to meet Jimm Juree with her confidence and optimism. Your Quercus list-mate Adrian Hyland, with his Emily Tempest mysteries set in Australia, has a similar heroine. Do you think there is something in the air that rejects the old tropes of “women in peril” that have been kept alive by Nikki French and others? If so, why is it that male authors are writing about these women?
To be perfectly honest I’m afraid of women. To be more specific I’m afraid of the women who stand up at question time and say, ‘Aren’t you ashamed to be demeaning women in your books?’ I don’t think I’ve demeaned any women in my books but I’ve been on panels with men who have done so with bells on. And, unlike them, I don’t have the self-confidence to say, ‘I don’t demean women. Women are demeaned. I just write about it.’ I’m a coward. I’m so politically correct I have women, the elderly, the educationally disadvantaged, a vast array of ethnic minorities and transvestites featuring prominently in my books. In fact the only character I don’t write is the good looking, firm-jawed, muscular, smart, athletic white guy. There are a godzillion books with Brad Pitt saving the world. The smart writer dips into the unlikely but loveable pool just to be different. If I have an ulterior motive in the Jim Juree books it’s to dispel the common misconception that all Thai women are either prostitutes or dumb rural rice farmers. I got an email once from a ‘fan’ saying that a female character in one of my short stories was ‘unlikely to know about political events in Europe or have an opinion on them’. Why?
You’ve said that Dr Siri was based on three people you knew. What about Jimm Juree? What about her family? I’m not sure if an American journalist once misunderstood something you said, but there’s an interview online which mentions your memory problems, and the mother in this book suffers severely in that way.
Okay. I’ve misled you by comparing Jimm to my wife. Apart from their ages and their birthplaces, there are NO similarities between them. Jimm is short, plain, a little overweight and hates the place they’ve moved to. She’s divorced and (on the surface) very anti-men. She’s a driven career-minded woman with no desire to live the country life. And she doesn’t like dogs. Neither Michelle Yeoh nor Ziyi Zhang will ever play her in the movie. I treated four lady newspaper reporters to dinner while I was putting Jimm together and felt a little intimidated by their presence, both physical and of mind. They were competence scary. And I could imagine how frustrating it would have been for one of them to be wrenched away from the career she loved and forced to look after a mother who’s on the precipice overlooking dementia, a bodybuilding cowardly young brother, a retired traffic cop grandfather and a dilapidated short-time beach motel.
I have no recollection of the interview you’re referring to but it seems unlikely that an American journalist would misunderstand me. American journalists are renowned for their honesty. I really do have no memory whatsoever. About ten years ago I started to lose my mind and with it went all my memories. But this is good news for my books because I’ve had to nurture my imagination to make up for it. I can now quite confidently answer all interview questions without the slightest qualms that the answers are conflicting each time.
I was intrigued when I read about “the minor wife of a propane gas tank baron” and more so when I realised she was not the wife of a minor propane gas tank baron. How exotic is Thailand as a setting? Is it so exotic that the exact order of adjectives is a near life or death matter? Do you expect to have to make frequent explanations or can readers make sense as they go along?
You have to remember that what gets into the finished book has already been hacked to death (or to life, dear Jane) by the editor. You’d have to assume that if it gets past him or her then if you, the reader, don’t get it, it’s probably because you’re not the brightest floodlight on the squid boat. I can imagine an editorial think tank where they look at the public they’re about to launch a book into and edit accordingly. ‘This is an original paperback distributed mainly to supermarkets so we’ll take out anything with four syllables.’ I like messing around with words so I often have minor skirmishes with my editor about things I want to include just because. Not making sense isn’t a serious setback to me. Take your question for example. What the hell does exotic Thailand have to do with the order of adjectives? Either you know nobody’s going to read this interview, or, like me, you are a swashbuckling penman who just wants to have fun. Good luck to you. And don’t forget, for people living in Wandsworth, Brighton is exotic.
Picking up on that making sense, I was sometimes going back to Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries as I read, especially in the chapters related to a Buddhist monastery. Do you think readers will make connections with other authors and other works? Do you ever find yourself looking to how earlier writers have worked?
I am in an enviable position in that I don’t read. I don’t mean I can’t read. I devour modern history and travelogues, newspapers and the odd magazine. But I don’t have a lot of time for fiction unless it’s got pictures. I’m a terrible disappointment at the cocktail bar at writer’s conferences. (Until everyone’s so drunk they lose the ability to name-drop and that’s when I come into my own with rugby songs.) But it means that what you get is writing that isn’t clogged up with references to other writers, neither direct nor subliminal. Readers have no choice but to compare because their heads are crammed full of all the stories they’ve stuffed in there over the years. So, yes, I’m sure they’ll read things into me. But there can be no comparison to writers I admire. If I have been influenced it would be by television or Mad Magazine or the cinema or music. I’d love to see a review that compares my writing to the piano playing of Thelonious Monk. Or even a reviewer who says who I don’t write like. I’m sure Alexander McCall Smith is a really nice fellow.
Unlike the Dr Siri books, where the politics resonate through everything, the political turmoil of Thailand (the Red Shirts in the capital) stays in the capital and does not reach Jimm Juree down on the south coast. Is that how it really is, or did avoiding politics help you write a more traditional mystery?
I think I would have preferred to write a story with no politics at all and concentrated on the mystery. But my book is set in Thailand and there’s nothing more slapstick than Thai politics. Of course that slapstick has started using live rounds instead of ‘BANG’ flags of late but, like my Laos of the seventies, there’s very much a ‘You can’t make this stuff up’ element. The corruption up there in the capital has a trickle down effect that in a year will leave its footprint on our little village. If there is such a thing as an honest MP or governor or mayor I have yet to meet him. We watched the red shirt drama play out on the neighbour’s TV with the same detachment as watching the dubbed version of The Golden Girls. Whoever wins the war up north won’t make a difference to us. The same bent politicians will be taking advantage of their positions and screwing the little man. And in order to keep their role they’ll shift allegiance to anyone who offers the best deal, screw political ideology. But, you know? Everyone expects it so there’s no outrage. And really, how can I write a book set in Thailand without a nod to the men who do so much to make rural life so hard?
In the past you’ve said that you tend to write a novel in about a month. Does that include the planning and plotting? Do you plan ahead, or do you just write? Did Jimm Juree require more writing than Dr Siri?
The actual ‘sit down and write with pen on exercise book in one sitting’ takes about three weeks with the Siri books. I have to do that because of my memory. (Have I mentioned my memory?) If I let myself be interrupted I lose track of whom I’ve killed and personal details. The first of the Jimm books took a month because I was on unfamiliar turf. I was still auditioning the actors and fine tuning their characteristics. I wasn’t too sure how they’d react or what direction they’d take the story. I tend not to plot. I spend several months doing research, interviewing the neighbours, going through the local papers and I’d probably have half-a-dozen crime ideas by the time I start. I have a low threshold for boredom so I don’t want to know how my books are going to end. I just let it go. I dip into the pool of material as I’m writing and let ideas play out till their natural conclusion or death. I take a lot of wrong turns but you get better at recognising the ‘Dead End’ signs concealed by ivy.
One feature of the Dr Siri books, is his connection with the spiritual world; somewhere he is able to slip into. That does not happen to Jimm Juree, but she has access to the virtual world of the internet through her sister, who seems to have several personae when she goes online. Are these continuing parallels of real and other worlds intentional?
This is one of the assignment questions they’ll be asking at Georgetown University when they do the Colin Cotterill, A Retrospective Analysis Course 407 in 2068. I have to confess here that I’m not really that smart. If there are parallels they’re all deep in my subconscious with rocks tied to them. I just write stories. What is intentional is the fact that Jimm’s only contact with ‘civilization’ is through her transsexual older brother Sissy who is an ageing ex-beauty queen now living in self-imposed exile in front of her computer. I love the irony of Sissy being Jimm’s only portal to the real world and that world is all on-line. I despair at the number of people who live their lives virtually. Those who have reality don’t appreciate it. There’s a windswept beach just twenty yards from me and here I am typing up answers to a web interview. And here you are reading it when you could be walking the dog or playing Frisbee with little Roger who only ever sees your hunched back these days.
Thinking about it, parallels play quite an important part in Killed At The Whim Of A Hat. There are deaths in two places. The first discovery of death involves two bodies found in a buried Volkswagon Kombi. We later discover that there are two missing Kombies. Am I over-reading something here?
There you go again, you swashbuckler. No idea what your question means so I’ll answer a different one. What if you’d asked me, ‘If by some miracle this new series hits the best-seller lists, aren’t you worried that you might be subjecting your idyllic little village to the same tourist invasion as Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code inflicted on various sites around Europe? To which I would reply, ‘Actually I’ve painted such a dark picture of living here that nobody in their right minds would consider holidaying here. It takes a special kind of insane person to find charm in living at the end of nowhere. But I do know what you mean. The Siri books’ publisher in Laos is putting together a Dr. Siri Tour booklet for the masses of sightseers going to Laos just to find the locations from the books. All right, perhaps ‘masses’ is overstating a tad but there was a couple who spent two weeks in Laos tracing the good doctor’s adventures. It’s only a matter of time before Fodor’s has everyone doing it.
Hats are a significant element in the story from the rules for headwear of Buddhist monks to hard-hats worn on building sites (there’s a Judge Dee novel, as well, in which the murderer’s only mistake involves a hat), but the origin of the title only becomes apparent about half-way through, and it comes courtesy of President “Dubya” Bush. In fact, every chapter begins with a quote from Dubya – is that just a nice little extra you’re giving us, or does he mean something else to you as well?
Because of GW, I almost didn’t develop the initial relationship with my wife. I was following the Dub’s re-election bid with ever growing dismay. I feared for the world if the idiot got a second term. It was like, ‘Despite all the darned foolish things I did in the first four years it looks like they want me back so I can do even more stupid stuff.’ I was drunk and following the returns on my computer and in a state of extreme melancholy. And I was disturbed by an email from a teacher asking me some inane grammar question. I don’t recall what I wrote in my reply but she certainly did. It took that teacher several months to build up the courage to contact me again. I was lucky she did. GW was almost responsible for one more disaster. I never forgave him for that (or Iraq) and vowed to get back at him. This was my chance.
If I can go back to the link between Dr Siri and Jimm Juree, because I’ve just been reading the synopsis of Love Songs From A Shallow Grave, your recent Dr Siri book. Both that and Killed At The Whim Of A Hat feature murders that link to the first world. Do you think that the Indo-Chinese countries have been corrupted by such contact; was it inevitable, with everyone gaining something (Jim Juree takes great comfort from the works of Clint Eastwood, I see); or as a pragmatist do you just regard the contact as there and something you can use?
The latter. I’m afraid once you allowed all those heathens access to telephones and aeroplanes and computers you were condemning the world to western influence; Ugandans to driving Hondas and Russians to wearing Levis and Thais to shopping at the 7/11. You can find the same peppermint mocha Frappuccino blend in Bangkok, Tokyo, Peru and Algeria. But wait. Didn’t I grow up drinking Coke and watching the Beverly Hillbillies? So that makes me a victim of alien tampering too. I can rue the loss of culture and innocence. I loved shut-down Vientiane in the early nineties because it didn’t have anything but its own charm. I had to cross the Mekhong to buy a newspaper. But were the locals happy that they didn’t have anything? No sir. They wanted what their Thai neighbours had and now their dream has been answered and Vientiane has become Little Bangkok. So they’re there, these culture clashes and, as a writer all I can do is note the contradictions and the hypocrisy and see the funny side of it all. It’s not that the third world was suddenly introduced to bad habits and unhealthy practices. They all had their own long before we colonists came along. And I guess if you were able to put foreign influences on a scale, the good and the bad would pretty much balance themselves out.
Putting a dead loss like Bush and a slightly more alive Clint Eastwood to one side, I’d like to read more about Jimm Juree. Meanwhile, 2011 will also see that new Dr Siri novel (your eighth), and you’ll be attending CrimeFest in Bristol in May. Colin Cotterill, thank you.
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Hbk £16.99 03.03.11