As you toil away writing in the back room of your two-up two-down spare a thought for poor old Colin Cotterill, who pens his crime novels in a small fishing village in southeast Asia. Colin’s the author of the Dr. Siri mystery books – he won the CWA’s prestigious Dagger In The Library Award in 2009 – and the third in his trilogy of Jimm Juree novels, The Axe Factor, comes out in paperback on Thursday.
Born in London, Colin has travelled the globe since 1975. He’s put all his experiences of the region – including working in child protection in Laos and Thailand – into his novels. In this fascinating intel interview Colin tells us about Jimm Juree, scribbling his first book on the back of bus tickets — and his life writing and illustrating in the shade of papaya trees.
Tell us about The Axe Factor…
The Axe Factor is the last in the Jimm Juree trilogy. It’s set in Chumphon, in a sleepy fishing village (which is incidentally where I live). Jimm is forced to leave her childhood home in Chiang Mai and her beloved job, and move south with her odd family to a place apparently bereft of crime and opportunities. But a rare offer to interview a famous English crime writer provides unexpected romance and intrigue as she becomes tangled in the whiles of a mad axe murderer. With a violent monsoon lashing the coastline, her sleepy nirvana becomes a hell. Dada dada da.
How would you describe your heroine Jimm Juree?
As Thailand’s only female crime reporter, Jimm was excellent at her job and was merely biding her time for cirrhosis to remove the man who ran the crime desk and for her to take over. Her background gave her an edge over other reporters. She’d been brought up in a weird household with a single mother who raised her children as international beings. Jimm studied in Australia and grew up in an environment that embraced western culture.
She was encouraged to think for herself and, like her computer genius transsexual elder brother and body building younger sibling, to pursue her own dreams. Briefly married, she had discovered that wedded bliss was not one of those dreams. In her mid thirties, a little over weight and under height, she had to use her intellect to eke out a story rather than her feminine charms. She loved her job. Then, one day, it was all over. All that potential down the drain as she found herself grilling mackerel and cleaning toilets in a ramshackle seaside resort.
Why is Thailand such a fertile place to set a crime series?
Crime in big western cities has become so well documented in literature, TV and movies that it’s getting harder to be original. This is why so many writers are leaving home and starting series in out-of-the-way places. There is no such thing as an original plot but there is the possibility to give an old plot a new twist. By setting a crime novel in a place and time in which merely surviving from day to day is a challenge (such as my Dr. Siri series in the early days of communist Laos) you present new challenges to both the protagonist and to the reader who thinks she or he knows it all.
A rural Thai setting cooks up a whole new batch of obstacles. Police in a country town have invariably been sent there because they’ve been naughty somewhere else. For our young heroin, getting cooperation from such a patriarchal institution creates havoc. So we have to rely on the networks that exist here at the grass roots level: women’s groups, village headmen, fishing communities, local radio, and the wisdom of the aged.
What’s the Thai sense of humour like?
If you’ve been following the news recently you’ll understand just how important it is to have a sense of humour in this country. Even during the earlier protests with grenades and bullets flying, the Thais could still sing karaoke and tell jokes to relieve the tension. A huge souvenir industry sprang up at the rally sites with plastic clappy hands and whistles and masks of the despot of your choice. On TV the popular comedy shows are slapstick and toilet humour but I suppose I was brought up on pantomimes so I can’t complain on that front. My Lao books have just started to be translated into Thai so we’ll see how the humour carries over.
As a constant traveller I’ve been in the enviable position of seeing situations from a number of different angles. It’s a view stay-at-home Englishmen rarely have. To see events in the UK from the Australian perspective, to be in the states during a presidential impeachment, to ride the Thai coups and read overseas news bites painting far different pictures, it all encourages a writer to be objective. I worked with Lao refugees in Melbourne, royalist escapees from the red threat. Then I moved to Laos and worked with the same socialists everyone had been so afraid of. It was this experience that allowed me to write accounts of life in Vientiane during the seventies that I portray in my Dr. Siri books.
I left England in 1975. I visit family often but I could never write about the place as I have no idea what’s happening there. I don’t think like an Englishman any more. I feel out of my depth. When an Asian gets on the bus in New Malden I tend to smile at him and get a nervous, ‘What’s he smiling at?” reaction. I sometimes wonder if I can feel his discomfort. I’m not saying I’m any more knowledgeable about events in Southeast Asia than him but I’m close enough to know how the locals react to events. My protagonists are Asian but with experience in the west so I can get away with making my characters atypical. This in turn allows them to think outside the often tightly lidded Asian box.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I spend a long, leisurely spell on research that invariably involves going to exotic locations and interviewing people. That’s the part of being a writer I like. Then comes the work. I tend to write intensively in a three or four week block. I have all my background materials scattered around but I need to put down a story without interruptions.
I used to go away to be alone but I’ve learned to discipline myself and ignore disasters like the wife blowing things up and now I can stay home and be invisible. I’d start writing (pen to notebook) about three pm and keep going til the red wine gets a mind of its own (around three am). I fall into bed. Interrupt sleep long enough to have breakfast and walk the dogs. Then I go over all the writing I did the night before and try to make sense of it. That brings me to lunch and then it’s three pm and it starts all over again.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That it’s work. I used to imagine this casual life with books writing themselves and royalty cheques raining down on me from publisher heaven. The first book I wrote on the back of bus tickets and in the margins of reports I should have been reading. I stole minutes here and there from my real job and patched it all together at weekends or on public transport. There are estimates that my first book sold eleven copies but I think that’s an exaggeration. You just have to thumb through a book like that and know where it failed.
You need discipline and to know where to find all the information you may or may not use to make your book credible. You write, you rewrite, you send to a publisher and she makes you start all over again. It’s much worse than homework.
How do you deal with feedback?
Surprisingly well, even though I hate it. I average about twelve editorial readers for each book. Some are regulars I pull in for specific jobs: a fact checker, an historian, a native or two of the country I’m writing about, a young person, and old person, a grump, professionals in fields relevant to the story, another writer, etc. And all this before I send it to the publisher who rubbishes it all over again.
One thing that always surprises me is that no matter how many readers you collect, very few of them will spot the same mistakes, be delighted or offended at the same parts, have the same feelings towards characters, or rate the book against others in the series in the same order. From that you learn that you really can’t please all the people all the time and that there’s absolutely no point in amending everything suggested by your readers.
I take a look and if I don’t agree, I don’t do anything. The book has already passed the Colin test. If two or three people make the same comment I’ll work on that, and sometimes I can see that something perfectly obvious to me (because I’ve read and reread the thing fifty times) is actually confusing.
Amazon readers…? Well, that’s a different rainforest altogether. Don’t go anywhere near it.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
I always stumble over this question because I’m not much of a reader of fiction. If I have reading time I prefer to make up for all the lost years I wasted at school. I enjoy modern history now and politics and biographies. But my favourite writers are travel writers. Norman Lewis travel stories have inspired me to go on journeys and have experiences I wouldn’t have thought of. I enjoy reading accounts of Old (place name here) and see how it’s gone to the dogs or been rescued since the days of the early traveler. I’ve happily chugged along on trains beside Paul Theroux and argued in British pubs with Bill Bryson. Good travel writing is very hard and I admire people who do it well.
Give me some advice about writing…
Really? Well I guess that depends who you are. If you’re an old hand and you aren’t getting anywhere, I’d tell you to shake off your ‘style’ and reinvent yourself. I used to find people in workshops who’d been told once they did something reasonably well and continued to use that gimmick for life. There is a great fear of shedding something that almost works and starting afresh with a new voice.
If you’re new to the game and getting frustrated, I’d tell you to lower your expectations. If your goal is to get published you already have a brick wall in front of you. This makes you depressed which in turn sours your writing. (and if writing isn’t fun I have no idea why you’d do it.) In this day and age it’s incredibly hard to get anything on a publisher’s desk. In fact, by the time the manuscript arrives there probably won’t be a desk to plunk it on. The odds are swinging away from a successful submission through an agent to a publisher. But with the advent of the internet, it has never been easier to have strangers read your work.
I believe that whatever genre you choose, despite the fact that there are millions of bloggers and short story posters and homepage entertainers, the cream will float to the top. If you’re any good, you’ll get noticed.
What’s next for you?
Still attempting to be an illustrator who writes (rather than a writer who illustrates). I don’t want to be one of these authors who writes the same book fifty times. So I’ve stopped writing. There will come a day when I run out of money but, meanwhile, the fish in the gulf is fresh, the papaya on the trees is sweet and there’s nothing here to spend money on anyway.