An interview with the talented writer, Colin Cotterill, another Thailand-based writer.
What made you want to be a writer, and why did you choose to write fiction?
Iím not one of those people who Ďknows theyíre a writerí from an early age. Iíd always wanted to play professional football or drive a fork-lift. All the time I lived in England, and then Australia, I didnít do any writing at all. It wasnít until I moved to Asia that the writer in me burst out of me like that hand puppet in Alien. I am, first and foremost, a cartoonist. Thatís in my blood. Iíd always submitted cartoons to newspapers but in Thailand the editors told me they didnít have anything for me to illustrate, why donít I write something and illustrate it myself? I started with observations as an outsider and moved on to cultural comparisons. I kept everything light because the point was to get my cartoons in print. Then, and it crept up on my like an opiate, the writing became a habit. I had to record all my observations. I rea ched a stage where I started to see everything as prose. I didnít use to carry a camera but I had notebooks everywhere with four page descriptions of things that didnít deserve more than a sentence. I managed to cut down on excesses over the years (hyperbolics anonymous) and I hope I have learned to paint pictures in my books that arenít too crowded.
Writing books emerged after a period of working in child protection. I was getting a lot of horrible reports across my desk about the plight of children in the region and I wanted the world to know about it all. I decided the best way to spread the word was to write a best-selling novel. How difficult could it be? I went to the airport and bought some of those thick doorstep books and decided I could do it too. I wrote three child-protection based novels all set and published in Asia. They sold about four copies between them so the whole point was lost, but I got good feedback from those four readers and decided to take a year off to write full-time, just to see if I could do it. And, what do you know? I could.
Do you come from a family of writers, or are you the first?
No, Iím a terrible disappointment at cocktail parties. Not only were there no writers in my family, there were no readers either. I donít remember seeing a book at home for the first fifteen years of my life. There were other priorities, I suppose. I developed a reading habit late in life but even so I still focus most of my attention on non-fiction. Only five percent of the reading matter on my Ďto doí list is fiction and itís either a book from a writer friend Iíve promised to read or a publisher asking for a blurb. Iím a hard audience. I give a book a chapter to seduce me and if my heart isnít fluttering by then, I give up.
How do you organize your working day? Do you have a family, children, daily parental obligations? Do you set aside specific time for writing, or do you fit it in as and when you are able? What is the most important thing in your life?
My wife, Jessi, and I have just moved to a small fishing community on the Gulf of Thailand and weíre getting used to things down here. My schedule has changed a bit too. Hereís the way it works at the moment. 6.a.m. get up, feed the dogs, get breakfast, check for my Nobel prize nomination on email (we have an enormous satellite dish). 8 a.m. read through whatever Iíve written or drawn the previous day. Throw half of it out. 9 a.m. ride bicycle into the village to get a newspaper and do post office stuff. 11 a.m. burn off the crap that arrives from the sea every morning (foam used to have such romantic seafaring connotations), break open a few coconuts, play with the dogs. 12. lunch. 1 p.m. Nap. 2 p.m. sit outside with a notepad and write whatever comes to me. This can be either work-re lated or just for fun. I try to remind myself that writing is a pleasure. I forget often. 3 p.m. get into some serious work. Depends what Iím into at the time. Right now Iím putting together some graphic stories. This continues until Iím bored and/or canít take any more and I give up and hang out with JessÖand the dogs.
When Iím working on a full-length book, I go away for the first three weeks and hide. No phone, no computer, no dogs. Just me and several notebooks and some red wine. I slap it all down as fast as I can then come home to work on it.
How easy (or difficult) was it to get your first novel published?
The first book (my previous mentioned best-seller) was comparatively easy. I sent the script to a local publisher and they liked it and agreed to publish. Sadly, it wasnít a particularly reputable house (which might explain why it was so easy). I have no idea whether theyíve sold any of my books as I have no contact from them. But the important thing was, Iíd lost my virginity. I was, for better or worse, a published author. I followed up with two more produced locally by a publisher who had read my quiet blockbuster and liked me. But all three were published in Thailand and not distributed outside the country. I saved up and bought a Bic with my first two years of royalties. It was more like a learning experience.
The challenge was to get out into the world. I wrote the first Dr. Siri book with an eye on the US. I got hold of a list of emails of reputable agents from a friend and carpet bombed them with a synopsis and sample of the first book. As everyone told me successful agents donít bother with email enquiries, this was just stage-one speculation. Iíd planned to send hard copy samples week by week over the next year. But of the seventy agents I contacted, six got back to me asking me to send a sample by post. One asked me to send the entire manuscript by email. I was nervous about this but I checked him out and he seemed solid enough, so I sent. He read it over the weekend and sent me an agency agreement on the Monday. Five months later I had a New York publisher.
Who or what was the inspiration for Dr Siri Paiboun?
I needed to put a face to the Lao characteristics I like most. A lot of foreigners living and working in Laos are frustrated by the attitudes and work ethic of the Lao people, but they donít consider the life theyíve had to live through and what theyíve had to do to survive. The Lao are an amazingly resilient race and they can keep a sense of humour in spite of everything. Dr. Siri is an amalgam of several people I know who constantly amaze me with their positive attitudes. As only a partly committed communist with an academic background and Hmong roots, Dr. Siriís able to comment on a broad spectrum of events; political, social and supernatural. Heís seventy two years of age so heís also able to tell us about other interesting historical moments through his personal experience. I set out to make a grandfather everyone would want to have, but Siri took over the character himself and came alive. To me heís real.
In what ways do I identify with him? Well, of course, he is me, or one little part of me, just as Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung are me. Our characters are just small segments of our troubled minds. They allow us to vent the anger and fears that dwell somewhere deep in us all. Dr. Siri is my Ďcapable with ballsí alter identity. The man I hope to become. Prepared to tell the idiots in charge where to go. Iím in the enviable position that I donít have to suffer too many fools any more. But weíve all worked for them or had to deal with them at a professional level. For all those times I juggled with the question, Ďshould I tell him where to stick his job?í Dr. Siri was building inside me.
Do you intend to write a lot more novels about Siri?
Initially, Siri was a two-book phenomenon. I didnít expect he would catch on the way he did. I was surprised when the publisher asked for a third, then a fourth and fifth, and that heís published overseas and in other languages. I have a contract for two more and have just completed the sixth. In September Iíll go over to an island and put together the seventh. Then I think it will be time to sit back and see whether I have anything else to say.
Does the Laos in your novels reflect the real Laos, or is it a kind of magical realist or alternative Laos? What I mean is, does Laos really have just one coroner? Do you have to censor yourself when you write about Laos, or do you have total artistic freedom, as you would if you wrote about the UK?
My Lao odyssey began in Australia where I was working with Southeast Asian refugees which in turn had me curious about where theyíd come from. Already Iíd started to hear fascinating and incredible stories about the country. I arrived in Laos in 1990 on a UNESCO teacher-training project and stayed there for four years. In this part of the world the lines between science and spiritualism are fuzzy. There seems to be no contradiction about medical personnel administering medications and recommending the patients say a few prayers to the house spirits for back-up. In many ways I think itís the Asian way of keeping an open mind about th e afterlife that allows them to get the natural world into perspective. In order to embody all of these tangled philosophies, I needed Siri to have lived a full and unusual life to be able to speak on these topics from experience.
But even from a personal point of view, Laos has always been a magical place. It has always been at war with invaders and colonists and with itself. Yet itís a place populated with some of the calmest and most peaceful people Iíve met anywhere. I wondered how such nice people always managed to find themselves in a battlefield, and soon came to realize the majority of the Lao didnít really know what was going on. They were eternal victims of bullies. All they asked was to work their fields and raise their children. In the early seventies, the Royalists and the Pathet Lao signed a ceasefire and for the first time anyone could remember, the fighting stopped. People liked the idea of peace, whatever the price. So, when the communist PL took over the country in 75, most people agreed they couldnít do much worse than their corrupt predecessors. The new government, fresh from the caves of the northeast with backing from the powerful Vietnamese, could pretty much do what it liked. The intellectuals and administrators of the old regime had escaped to Thailand so the Reds found themselves with a country to run and few ideas of how to go about it. They were scared, and fear leads to paranoia. The Coronerís Lunch series is set amid this period of political upheaval. It was a time when even the most banal activities became difficult, when you couldnít sell a chicken without written permission. It added a new dimension to a mystery story, like a boxer going into a ring with his feet tied together.
I havenít censored myself at all and Iím sure a lot of the existing administration (many of them left over from those early days) will take exception to some of my comments. But there is little reading done in Laos and I didnít expect anyone in authority to see what Iíd written. Censorship in-country has, over the past three years, eased up and a number of non-fiction books that could be considered Ďcontroversialí are being sold in local bookshops. I suppose thatís why I made the decision to allow the rights to my series to be bought by a local publisher for a Lao imprint. The books will come out in English for sale only in Laos, and then they will be translated into the Lao language. Iím very excited about this for two reasons. First because I am a foreigner writing about Lao characters. For the Lao to be able to read the stories leaves me very exposed. It will be a huge test to see whether Iíve got it right. Second, Iím wondering how the administrators will react. But I think theyíll be too busy selling off the country to the Chinese to care about little old meÖoops, there I go again.
Oh, and, as far as anyone knows, there isnít a coroner in Laos, even today.
When you write a novel, what comes first Ė story, setting, characters, theme? Or do they all arrive at once?
When youíre working on a series, most of the work on characterization is done before the first book. You just have to be faithful to your characters in subsequent books. I think setting, both geographically and historically are very important. In my case, I had a time and a place that were fascinating even without a storyline. That really helps. I do a lot of research and I have all those facts and figures beside me when I start to write, along with piles of notebooks with ideas, perhaps ninety percent more information than Iím ever going to need for the book. Then I sit down and write. I write like a reader. I donít want to know how the story ends when I begin. I donít plan, or at least, I donít have a fixed plan. I usually have three or four directions I could head off into and I often find myself in dead ends and have to turn back . But I think thatís the fun of writing. Being surprised by your own story. Being moved to tears by something you didnít expect to happen. Writing to me is a little like meditation. I get lost in the book and am usually surprised when I get to the end and realize it was me who wrote it.
Who are your own favourite and/or inspirational novelists?
As I mentioned, I read very little fiction and although there are writers who impress me, I canít go so far as to say they have inspired me. Iím more influenced by journalism, the type that gets in, gets the job done, and gets out only slightly injured. Even though I donít practice it, I enjoy that economy of words, telling your story as succinctly as possible and getting the facts right. I like getting lost in the musings of travel writers and modern history documenters who have the ability to put you there at the scene with the minimum of fuss. Unlike most writers, I was inspired to read after I started to write. I suppose that once I discovered how difficult the writing process was, I needed to read other writers to see whether they made it look any easier. But once you start to an alyze what youíre reading, it stops being a pleasure.
I grew up in the age of Mad magazine and Marvel comics and, with that confession out of the way, I now feel a need to champion the rights of the comic reader. I have heard teachers bemoan the fact that children these days seem more interested in Ďmangaí than in real books. I concede that there is a lot of junk in comics. But Iíve found a good deal of excrement in Ďreal booksí too. I love to see kids looking at the pictures and being lost in a fantasy and, quite frankly, I donít care if itís a trashy samurai slash and burn tale. I believe the imagination deserves a workout every bit as much as the abs. I canít guarantee manga will set off our kids in the direction of excellent literature, but Iíd sooner have them absorbed in cartoon f iction than watching celebrities clean their teeth beneath a hidden Ďbathroom camĒ. I gladly give credit for my weirdness and my overactive imagination to Alfred E. Newman.
What are your future writing ambitions?
We just moved so the concept of spare time has vanished for a while. I have the outline of a graphic novel that will take about a year to complete. In the meantime I have to make a living. I just sent the sixth Dr. Siri book, The Merry Misogynistí off to the editor and I can relax for a few weeks. Iím working on a collection of short stories about characters over sixty-five with something in their past or their present that they have every right to be ashamed of. I wanted to call this, ĎDisgusting Old Peopleí, but I think the PC people already have my name on a hit-list so Iím now going with, ďAgeing DisgracefullyĒ. Iím trying to sneak in a couple of graphic stories and hope the publishers wonít notice. I have one book trip planned for this year, to the Harrogate Crime festival in England in July.
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