Sulari Gentill Talks About Her New Book and the Secret She Has for Aspiring Authors

An interview with the author of 'Shanghai Secrets'

Sulari Gentill was a successful lawyer before deciding about ten years ago to write her first novel. That decision changed Gentill, and now she’s published her 14 books. Poisoned Pen Press recently released her latest novel, Shanghai Secrets, the ninth in Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair mystery series.

Here’s a synopsis for Shanghai Secrets:

In a city full of strangers, be careful whom you trust...

Shanghai, 1935. Black sheep gentleman Rowland Sinclair arrives with his bohemian housemates from Sydney, Australia to explore a new city and take the name Sinclair international with a new class of negotiations. A novice to global commerce, Rowland is under strict instructions from his brother to keep a low profile...but that soon becomes next to impossible. A beautiful Russian taxi girl--who once claimed to be the Princess Anastasia and who danced in Rowly's arms the night before--is found slain in his suite.

Out of sympathy for the murdered girl and to clear his name, Rowly and his companions embark upon their own investigation. They soon discover there are many people who may have wanted Alexandra Romanovna dead. As they are drawn deeper into Shanghai society and its underworld, Rowly searches for answers in a strange city determined to ruin him.

Exploring the simmering underbelly of Shanghai just years before WWII, Shanghai Secrets is a historical mystery that brings alive an expatriate playground where East and West collide, the stakes are high, and fortunes--and lives--are easily lost.

In the interview below, Gentill recounts how she became a successful author, her writing method, and the secret she has for aspiring writers.

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Interview with Sulari Gentill

Conducted by Emily Quiles

This is the ninth book of your Rowland Sinclair Mystery Series. Tell us, how did it all start?

I used to be a corporate lawyer, unaware that I needed or even wanted to be anything else.  My career was going well—I had climbed the ladder quickly, then started my own consulting firm and was appointed to a number of public boards. There was absolutely no reason to rock the boat. 

During this time I was something of a serial hobbyist. I’d pick up a hobby, devote all my free time to it for about six months, and then move on to the next. I’ve quilted, and cross-stitched, painted and sculpted, I can make stained-glass windows and porcelain dolls, I’ve planted mazes, raised miniature cattle, learned the basics of horse whispering, I can weld, upholster, and pregnancy test your cows. In hindsight, I expect, subconsciously, I knew something was missing, that there was something else I was supposed to be doing, and so, I was looking. 

I began writing in much the same way as I began every other hobby. I was bored and so I thought “I’ll write a novel.” It was nothing more than that. A whim. I had no idea how one wrote a novel—I just began writing. 

But it wasn’t like all the hobbies before it. It seemed as natural as breathing, the thought of stopping as dire. I lost interest in my other hobbies and to be honest, the law. So I rocked the boat—in fact, I tipped it over—closing down my legal practice, so I could write more or less full time. That was a little over ten years ago now.

There’s Milton the poet, Clyde the artist, Edna the sculptress, and of course “the gentleman artist-cum-amateur-detective,” Roland Sinclair. How do you develop and ‘get to know’ your characters, even after ten years?

I don’t consciously develop my characters. I allow them to evolve through the story, through their interactions with other characters and, through their interactions with me.  They reveal and grow and change.

In the beginning, I know only the barest details, I throw impressions onto the page. And then I allow them to take shape. I put my characters in situations and I watch—how they respond, what they do, what makes them run, what makes them fight. And I write it down.

I get to know these people I’ve made up as my readers do. Over the years, we’ve become closer, I know them better, but not completely—never completely. They remain able to surprise me. And because they can still surprise me, because there is still more to know about them, there’s another book to write.

Previously Rowland and his friends have been in Munich, London, and New York. Why did you choose Shanghai this time? And where are you taking us next?

Through the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, I try to explore the 1930s, during which fermented all the resentment, prejudice, fear, and hostility that led to the second World War. After eight books I realized that my explorations had been very Western in perspective.  And so I chose Shanghai for book nine so that I could turn Rowland’s eyes east, and through them look at the social and political tensions on the other side of the world. 

The next book—Where There’s A Will—is set in the U.S.  So I’m not sure I’m taking you anywhere—it’s more that I’m bringing Rowland Sinclair to you.

You tastefully move readers along your imagined storyline with selected news articles reminding us of the historical narrative and context of the time, being Shanghai in 1935 leading up to World War II. Can you take us through your research process?

I am what they call in Australia an ‘extreme pantser’—I write by the seat of my pants and don’t plot at all. I generally have no idea what’s going to happen on the next page, let alone the next chapter or in the end. And so my research process must accommodate this way of writing. Basically, I research as I write when, and only when, it is called for. I begin writing and keep going until I hit something specific that I don’t know, at which point I engage in some targeted research which I get done as soon as possible so that I can return to writing.

One of the advantages of the process is that since it is the story that leads what I research, rather than the other way round, I am less likely to include excess or superfluous material simply because I don’t want to waste the hours I’ve spent discovering it, or to contrive the plot to include some bit of historical research I can’t bear to leave out.

On top of this, there is what I call writer’s radar. When I’m writing I seem to constantly, coincidentally come across things that relate to the manuscript. Of course, the universe is not conspiring to help me write a book, but occasionally it seems that way. I think when you’re truly immersed in what you’re writing your brain makes connections and picks up on things it would otherwise miss in the general day-to-day noise of life. All of a sudden you hear and see things you would have paid no attention to before.

The news articles which head each chapter are found after the manuscript is finished—I spend a day or two, just before I send the manuscript in, searching online newspaper databases for articles and items that will add context and color.

While reading Shanghai Secrets I couldn’t help but make parallels to the politically tense world we see today. (Dare I say the word socialism?) Is it easier to tell the truth in fiction than in nonfiction?

Yes. Absolutely. Fiction allows you to distract the reader with a mystery or a murder while you talk to them about prejudice, or fascism, exploitation or poverty, politics or religion—topics which usually see people raising their defenses. A story gives you a reason to have the conversation, an opportunity to do so in a way that’s not threatening and allows you to humanize consequences. My work is set in the 1930s, but I’m not talking about the past.

So you went from writing contracts as a lawyer, to writing books. Care to share some important lessons you learned as a lawyer that you now use as a crime fiction writer?

I’ve found the law an excellent apprenticeship for writing fiction. It is, after all, a story-telling profession. A case is just the story of a crime, or, in the corporate context, the story of a relationship. Generally speaking, the party that tells the best story wins.

On a very practical level, being a lawyer taught me to write quickly and precisely, to be vigilant about internal consistency, and that leading a juror to realization is far more effective than telling them what to think. I learned that gentle persuasion is more powerful than a polemic, that observing how people respond is important and that, in the end, everything must come together to make sense. I came to know that desperate people often make terrible decisions and that sometimes people do utterly stupid things for no reason other than that they were being stupid. All this is as useful for a writer as it is for a lawyer.

I think the most valuable lesson, however, was about the power of perspective. It can turn a hero into a villain and vice versa; every story is the other side of another.

You come across as an ambitious writer. I mean, you’ve published 14 novels since 2010. Can you share your secret or at least your routine?

There are writers who love writing and writers who love having written, for whom the actual writing part of the endeavor is torture—something through with they must suffer to realize the vision of their book.  I’m of the former variety.  Even after 14 published books, there is nothing I love more than the act of writing, of laying one word after another to create people and worlds and story.

There is a lot about the writer’s life that is beyond our control. Sales, reviews, literary prizes, the favor of publishers—you can hope for them, work towards them, but it’s really out of your hands, and if your fulfillment as a writer is dependent on them, it’s likely to be a rough ride. If however, you can love the craft, the act of choosing words and following the muse, of trying to translate the story in your head onto the page, then the rest of it is just a bonus.

So if I have a “secret” that’s it: I have found a way of working that allows me to love the mechanics of the art. I don’t plot, I play very close to the line between imagination and delusion allowing myself to “believe” in the people I’ve made up, I write in pajamas and only when I want to. And as a consequence, when I’m not writing, I look forward to the moment I can get back to it, I dive into it with the same enthusiasm and excitement that I did my first book. 

Of course, the idiosyncrasies of my method are just that, but if I was to give a new writer advice, I would tell them first and foremost to find a writing process that they enjoy, that makes them happy in and of itself. Suffering for your art sounds very romantic but I’d recommend that you avoid the suffering part if you can.

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