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Author Talk: June 21, 2018

GENTLEMEN FORMERLY DRESSED is the fifth and latest entry in Sulari Gentill’s series of mysteries set in the 1930s featuring Rowland Sinclair, the gentleman artist-cum-amateur-detective. In this interview, Gentill discusses her inspiration for the series, how she conducts her research to give authenticity to the settings, why she is a “pantser” (a novelist who writes by the seat of her pants), the most interesting queries she has received from her readers, and why she often has two or more books going at the same time.

Question: This fifth novel in your Rowland Sinclair series brings us to 1933, the same era in which Agatha Christie's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was published. Who among the writers of this Golden Age period are your favorites for inspiration?

Sulari Gentill: I've been reading Agatha Christie since I was a child, and I love her books still, as I do Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels. And whilst he's not a mystery writer, P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie and Jeeves books are also among my favourites. To be honest, though, I don't really look to other writers for inspiration, though I do work in the tradition they've established. The inspiration for the Rowland Sinclair novels often comes from the past itself. I have an eye for patterns that repeat, and I'm drawn to absurdities in history. It's those real events and anomalies that seem to catch my attention and inspire a Rowland Sinclair mystery.

Q: The previous novel took Rowland to Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. Now we are in the England of 1933. How do you conduct your research to give authenticity to the settings you use in these period mysteries?

SG: I read, I Google, I try to get a feel for the setting and its people. I look particularly for those things about a place that would interest Rowland, the kind of things he'd notice. As an artist, he tends to look upon a scene as a composition for painting, he notices symmetry and light, he regards people in terms of how he'd paint them, and because he paints portraits almost exclusively, it's people who interest him more than landscapes. Hence the sense of place in my novels is led by a sense of people. I do try to talk to people who hail from the place in which I'm setting a novel, I listen for speech patterns and local sayings --- they are often as distinctive as accents --- and I watch for the way they say things. I ask about their memories, because even if it's inaccurate, the way people remember a place is as important as what was actually there. I am careful not to over-describe, and I trust the imaginations of readers to colour in the pictures I sketch.

Q: Before you became a published author, were you an inveterate reader of historical mysteries? Or did that interest come to you later?

SG: I can't remember when exactly I read my first Agatha Christie mystery --- it was well before my teens --- but I'm not sure I was ever an inveterate reader of anything. I've always been rather eclectic in my choice of books, reading across most genres. What I wanted most from any novel was a character who intrigued me, one with whom I'd enjoy spending time, one about whom I cared. That hasn't changed, and as a writer, character is as important to me as plot. It just so happens that the stories I want most to tell are best told as mysteries, and the characters I've created are determined to investigate them.

Q: Before writing a new novel, do you outline your plots in detail, or do you like to shoot from the hip and let inspiration strike?

SG: I am what is referred to in Australia as a "pantser" --- a novelist who writes by the seat of her pants. I usually have no idea what will happen on the next page, let alone in the rest of the story. I have a vague concept of the issue I want to explore, whether it's political or sectarian divisions, prejudice, social inequity, etc. But otherwise my method has always been to throw my characters into a situation and allow them to behave as they naturally would. So far it's worked, though I must admit there is always a point about three-quarters of the way through every novel when I think "Good grief --- what I have I done? I've written myself into a corner!" It's that point at which I gather my courage, grit my teeth and keep writing. As I said, it's far.

Q: In between Rowland Sinclair novels, in 2017 you wrote an excellent psychological thriller called CROSSING THE LINES. Do you have another stand-alone thriller in the works? And do you ever have two books going at once when you write?

SG: I often have two or more books on the go. I find one gives me a break from the other. The books are often at different stages, so I'm not in the intense writing phase of two novels at one time. I am also often editing another book alongside. It can get awkward when multiple deadlines are looming, but Rowland Sinclair's readership does not like to be kept waiting, and there are other stories I want to tell. I do have another stand-alone contemporary thriller in progress. The idea behind it was sparked by current events rather than history. I think writing novels is my way of discussing and exploring issues that concern or intrigue me, and working out exactly how I feel about them. Sometimes it takes throwing a character into the extremities of an issue to understand the ramifications. This new novel will be set in the US --- in Lawrence, Kansas, to be exact. I have a dear friend, a fellow mystery writer, who is staking out the streets and coffee shops of Lawrence taking photographs and making notes for me as we speak!

Q: What was the most interesting query you ever received from one of your readers?

SG: Interesting as in bizarre? I did have a gentleman who stood up at a writers' festival when questions from the floor were invited. He began by introducing his wife who was very heavily pregnant. He told me that she had barely spoken to him since discovering my books, that every night she went to bed with a Rowland Sinclair mystery and that her eyes became dreamy whenever she spoke of him. What he wanted to know from me was whether he should be worried about the unborn child. I'm 90% sure he was kidding, but a little part of me is bracing for a paternity suit against Rowland Sinclair.

Interesting as in it made me think? It's a standard question, but one never fails to make me wonder. How will it all end for Rowland Sinclair and his companions? The fact is I don't know. I intend to write them through the war, but how it will affect them, how they'll survive, if they'll survive, are all things I don't know, and things I want to know. It's wondering about what happens next that keeps me writing, I guess.