Interview with Crime Thriller Novelist Colin Cotterill – Creator of the Dr. Siri and Jimm Juree Series
Author Colin Cotterill
Colin Cotterill was born in London, England. He has dual English and Australian citizenship. He spent several years in Laos, initially with UNESCO. Colin currently lives in a small town on the Gulf of Thailand, where he writes the award-winning Dr. Siri mystery series set in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and the Jimm Juree crime novels set in Chiang Mai and southern Thailand. Colin has trained in and taught physical education early in his career. He has also taught and been a curriculum writer at Chiang Mai University, was the Project Director of Child Watch, an NGO for itinerant children in Phuket, Thailand and worked at refugee camps along the Burmese border. His uniquely hand-written CV may be viewed here.
In 2009 Colin Cotterill received the Crime Writers’ Association “Dagger in the Library” award for being “the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users.” Cotterill won the Dilys Award in 2006 for Thirty-Three Teeth and was a Dilys Award finalist in 2010 for Love Songs From a Shallow Grave. The Dilys Award has been presented every year since 1992 by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association to the title member booksellers have most enjoyed selling.
Since 1990, Cotterill has been a regular cartoonist for national publications (and he does cool book covers).
KC: In an essay by Jong Jie in 3:AM Magazine titled Literature and Politics Jie states:
“Where politics seeks to obscure, literature seeks to uncover; it insists upon a scrupulous rendition of reality, and on the courage to face up unflinchingly to it, no matter what it holds.”
Southeast Asia politics obscures in their own particular way. You’re a novelist who has interwoven politics into your stories from many countries. I wish to focus on three: Laos – the setting for your Dr. Siri novels and a standalone novel Pool and Its Role in Asian Communism, Thailand – the setting for your Jimm Juree series, and Burma, which you’ve written about in one of your earliest novels focusing on child abuse and pedophilia, Evil in the Land WIthout. What, if anything, do you set out to uncover about the political society of those three countries or put another way, what rendition of reality do you wish to convey? How is the politics different among the three countries and how is it similar?
CC: Jesus H Trueman, this is like a bloody university exam. What happened to the good old ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’
Okay, start. I know nothing about the penthouse of politics. Or, rather, I know what the newspapers and websites tell me, which is the same thing. But I live down in the basement where the garbage chute comes out. I think that’s why I write about the dregs and orts of policies and doctrines rather than the people who randomly make them up. I describe how people are affected by bad decisions. I started writing because I wanted readers to know about the seedy child abuse issues in Southeast Asia. The first hurdle I hit was that people don’t want to read about the seedy child abuse issues in Southeast Asia. It took two more books before I learned how to cleverly disguise my issues in a jolly yarn (Pool and its Role in Asian Communism). And that has become my signature. You get to the end of my books and ask, ‘I wonder if there’s any truth in that.’ With a bit of luck you might even look it up. I write fiction but I tend to stay faithful to history. I may move buildings or shift dates for convenience but my characters are always directly influenced by the politics of the day and they’re not afraid to have opinions.
Similarities? A country with no freedom of speech run by a military dictatorship. You tell me which of the three countries I’m describing.
KC: Your SoHo Crime colleague Cara Black has said, “We write to give a voice to those who aren’t heard.” You’ve told me why you started writing; why do you still write?
CC: I don’t really like writing that much. It isn’t my outlet of choice but how many people in the world are doing what they truly want to be doing? In the beginning (and I was a very late starter) I wrote to see whether I could write and whether I could write well enough to make a living out of it. It was one of the challenges I set myself. I’ve been doing it all my life. I got lucky and passed that test. There are much better writers than me today who don’t even get their manuscripts on an agent’s desk. My timing was right. I haven’t moved on to the next challenge because none of the others involve paying the grocery bills. So the answer to your question is, ‘to feed the dogs’.
KC: You seem to have made a conscious decision to live a reality based life over a virtual one. There is no shortage of authors of varying abilities utilizing social media at varying levels. Are you sure that walks on the beach, gardening, riding your bicycle, playing with your gaggle of dogs and illustrating in your spare time beat receiving a slew of LIKES for posting a picture of Laurel and Hardy on Facebook or replying to a fan on Amazon who left you a 4 Star review? What are your thoughts regarding technology trends in the 21st Century, particularly as they relate to the publishing world and interaction with your fans?
CC: What do you mean? I have email. Since when is that not technology? But even that’s a little too convenient for me. I miss the days when you sat on the front step waiting for the postman and cursed under your breath when he walked past. I have an email account now so the postman walks past virtually and there’s nobody to swear at when I have nothing in my in inbox. If anyone wants to get in touch with me it doesn’t take a lot of detective work. I appreciate the effort. But they can’t do it by clicking. I don’t have face book because I think it’s dumb. In my universe, ‘friend’ is a noun and ‘befriend’ is a verb and never the twain shall meet.
I was lucky in that I rode the last wave of print publishing. That public is dying out and being replaced by a Kindle generation. And with e-reads comes pirating. I can download any of my books absolutely free any time I like. So why should I pay for them? It might not be a bad thing as people who wouldn’t have bothered to pick up my books at a shop are able to take a taste of me. With that taste will naturally come addiction and, inevitably, sales. “You know? Granny might like this. I’ll get a print copy and send it to her.”
KC: Your first Dr. Siri novel, The Coroner’s Lunch came out in 2004. The protagonist is a green-eyed, septuagenarian coroner – the country’s lone coroner – living in socialist Laos during the 1970s. This was obviously all part of a winning formula that would see the Dr. Siri series remain popular for over a decade and reach 10 books strong, with the upcoming Six and a Half Deadly Sins (SoHo Crime), scheduled for a May 19th, 2015 release. What are the joys and difficulties of writing a series of that length, given the starting age of your protagonist? Is it a safe assumption you didn’t envision either the popularity or length of the series?
CC: I was once on a panel with Robert Crais and one of his words of wisdom for aspiring writers was to make your protagonist young in anticipation of a long series. Dr. Siri started out at seventy two in a country whose use-by life expectancy was fifty-something. I had no idea the good doctor would become so popular and it does present certain problems. One of these is that I can’t afford to dally too long between books. Sometimes the next episode follows on only minutes from its predecessor. Ten books on and he’s still only seventy-four. I suppose somewhere along the line I should consider a prequel.
I have a horrible memory and that is a terrible affliction for someone writing a series. I’m supposed to remember every detail of every event, every character. You might think it wouldn’t matter if the dog changes gender (to anyone other than the dog) or Comrade Civilai’s Citroen suddenly becomes a Renault. But, to some, it is akin to misquoting the scriptures. I have fans who know my characters better than I know my own father. What do you do at audience question time when somebody asks, ’It appears Dr. Siri is clinically alcoholic. Don’t you think it’s time he gets some help?’ I want to say, ‘He’s fictional’ but I look into the fan’s eyes and realize he’s not.
The only good point in having a regular cast of characters is that they tend to develop stories without me. In the beginning you’d say hello to them at the first script reading and they’d be nervous and uncertain. But after a couple of years you arrive late for the first editorial meeting and they’d have their parts written out already. ‘This is how I’d react in that situation,’ says Nurse Dtui. You even dare to swerve out of character and the personality police are on your back.
KC: Lets stay with character and personality. Pick any characters whom you have created and enjoyed spending time with, other than Dr. Siri and Jimm Juree – tell me their strengths and flaws and the novel(s) they can be found in.
CC: I’m very fond of the two main characters in Pool and its Role in Asian Communism, mainly because they are so diverse. Waldo is an African American widower due for retirement from his lifelong job at a pool ball factory. Saifon is a Lao girl who was trafficked to the states when she was very young and grew up on the streets. Both are flawed in their own sweet ways but they develop an unlikely friendship that endures. It was a fun relationship to write and a challenge in that the entire book was written in ungrammatical colloquial English.
Of my more recent characters I think I’d have to choose Jimm Juree’s Granddad Ja, a retired Thai policeman who spent his entire career in the traffic division because he refused to take bribes. I know…but it’s fiction. I’ve just realized how many elderly characters I have in my books. It looks like I’m paving the way for my own journey down the other side of the hill.
KC: In 2004 you wrote, “We tend to notice only the atrocities that suit us.” There is no shortage of atrocities going on near and far. Let’s focus on two that have occurred in 2015. The Charlie Hebdo slaughter in Paris, France, which left 12 people dead and the killing of 29 school children in Damaturu, Nigeria by gunmen from the Islamist group, Boko Haram. In addition to being a novelist who has written about issues that affect African children, you’re also an accomplished cartoonist. There are those who argue that the same outrage was not felt world-wide over the killing of the 29 school children as there was for the security guard and Charlie Hebdo staff who were killed. What can you say about these two sad events?
CC: Disasters have an element of ‘Thank goodness it’s not one of us’ attached to them. If Malaysian flight 370 had been full of Australian rugby players or Canadian girl guides, there would have been more of an uproar. But most of the passengers were Chinese. Sigh of relief. After the 2004 tsunami the west was shocked at the number of white holiday makers killed. Two movies were made showing the plight of the whities even though 280,000 of the victims were Asian. Perhaps when we see a photograph of a Caucasian massacre victim it’s easier to believe it could have been us. But even so, uproar has a short shelf life.
The Charlie Hebdo killings came as I was writing my latest Dr. Siri book. The title is “I Shot the Buddha”. A few people I’d mentioned that to got in touch with me and urged me to change it for fear of repercussions. It annoyed me that idiotic violence should have an influence on my freedom of speech. The book doesn’t insult Buddhism but even if it did I reserve the right to insult any religion I wish. I welcome dialogue on the subject but I do not welcome a round of ammunition through the chest. If I were to believe in a god it would be because I loved him, not because I was scared to death of him.
KC: You live with your wife in the literary hotbed of Thailand. A fishing village located on the southern part of the Gulf of Thailand, Pak Nam. Describe Pak Nam as if you were employed with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and then again, as if to keep your most brazen fan from stalking you for your autograph of a first edition hard-copy of The Merry Misogynist.
CC: The small town of Pak Nam (cagily non-specific as down here every town a short way from the coast has its own Pak Nam) sits on the estuary of the xxx river. As the sun rises on the Gulf of Thailand, it nudges home the squid boats, their decks piled high with the night’s catch. The colourful market is vibrant with the mix of southern Thai and Burmese accents. The open fronted shops on the narrow streets offer great bargains: Malay cloth, Chinese toys and trinkets and music CD’s all the way from Myanmar. And for tourists and locals alike, the restaurants offer all the delicacies one would expect from a town so in harmony with the sea.
But, of course, nobody in their right mind would live there. The beaches are strewn with garbage nine months of the year and the shallow waters are a breeding ground for great schools of jelly fish. To break the monotony of a place with no entertainment, bodies regularly wash up on the sand, carried in on the currents from popular tourist islands. If you’re really bored you can go to the high spot of Pak Nam, the 7-Eleven, and watch the Burmese being shaken down by the police, or take a drive along the most dangerous stretch of highway in the country to Tesco where they have thirty four brands of cooking oil but no wine. Better still, don’t come.
KC: What can your readers expect from Dr Siri’s latest adventure, Six and a Half Deadly Sins?
CC: During the decades of civil war in Laos, the Chinese were building roads in the north of the country under the guise of international aid. It wasn’t a coincidence that the roads headed from China in the direction of the Vietnamese and Thai borders. Even in the fifties the cunning Chinese were paving the way to international trade. But when hostilities began in 1978 culminating in a Chinese invasion of Vietnam, these roads had a more sinister meaning, providing the invaders with another front from the west. It was all Laos could do to prevent China from crossing their borders.
Dr. Siri and Madam Daeng become entangled in this international intrigue whilst following a trail of clues woven into the hems of Lao skirts. Can they solve the puzzle before the invaders swarm across the border? Can they hold their own with the criminals operating in the hub of the Golden Triangle drugs trade? And whose funeral is that at the end of the story? (Cue kettledrums)
KC: Peter Sellers, in his role of Chance the gardener in the movie Being There said, “In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.” What wisdom can you add to that and what was the last item out of your garden that you shared with a neighbor?
CC: That’s my favourite movie. But Dr. Siri goes one better with his immortal line, ‘Forget the planet, save the garden.’ It’s my own pay-it-forward mantra. If everyone undertook one small random act of gratuitous generosity from time to time, the world would eventually sort itself out. But of course not everyone will, so we’ll be stuck with the mess we have today. Selfishness rules. In fact we took a bag of our mangos to the neighbor just this morning to wish them a happy new year. The buggers threw water at us.
KC: The dogs in your Jimm Juree series get more than cameo roles – a trio even get a mention in the acknowledgments of The Axe Factor – GoGo, Sticky Rice and Beer. One becomes a hero and saves the day. If everyone had the desire and ability to be a dog owner what are the first few things they would learn?
CC: Cesar Millan (the dog whisperer) reminds viewers every week that dogs are not small people. But, of course, they are. They have personalities and far more human characteristics than a lot of people I know. But they’re small people who forgive easily, who don’t care about our bad habits and who provide love unconditionally. After a tricky domestic upset a few years ago I made the decision not to go back on the road but to stay with my dogs. They’ve repaid me a thousand times for that decision. Of course they get a part in my books.
KC: This interview happens to coincide on the two year anniversary of my blog with the frog in the coconut shell, which you kindly drew for me. Thanks again for that.
CC: Happy anniversary.
Colin Cotterill also has another novel coming out next week. Here is the synopsis from Amazon.com:
Colin creates a new member of his cast of characters in is latest book Bleeding in Black and White. CIA agent Robert “Bodge” Leon has been deskbound since joining the agency at its post-WW2 inception. He dreams of being in the field, but when that happens it goes far from as expected. Sent to the Vietnamese highlands during the French fight against independence, he meets the beautiful concubine of the Emperor. Meanwhile back in the US the KGB is using a purge inside the CIA to recruit double agents. Can Bodge survive to find love in the Orient and see justice done back home?
For more information about the author, cartoonist and regular chappy, Colin Cotterill go to: www.colincotterill.com
You may pre-order Six and a Half Deadly Sins, scheduled for a May 19th, 2015 release at Amazon.com
To read page 306 of Six and a Half Deadly Sins click here.
For a book review of Six and a Half Deadly Sins from the New York Journal of Books click here.
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