Ex-astrophysicist and one-time lawyer Sulari Gentill is now a truffle farmer, spectacular baker and award-winning author.
The creator of the widely acclaimed Rowland Sinclair mysteries, Sulari is currently celebrating the release of the series’ ninth book, All the Tears in China.
With her characteristic generosity, Sulari has included a Tasmanian leg in her latest book tour to support the state’s newest literary festival - Murder She Wrote, the 2019 staging of the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival - with a series of literary fundraisers including an opulent afternoon tea, books and wine soirée and writing masterclasses.
As the festival’s director, I’m excited to introduce a whole new Tasmanian audience to Sulari’s wit, wisdom and insight into both Australian history and the publishing industry. And as a reader and a writer, I’m looking forward to behind-the-scenes glimpses into the making of one of Australia’s premiere historical mystery series.
I caught up with Sulari as preparations for her tour were reaching fever pitch…
1. In a previous life, you lived and worked in Tasmania. How do you feel about returning now to share your work and experiences as an author?
I lived in Tasmania as a young lawyer many years ago. At the end of my contract I was offered the chance to stay. It was a really hard decision. I love the island, its landscape, its incredible light, its people and most of all its creativity. In Tasmania I always seemed surrounded by art and craft and innovation, by people who wanted to make things and write things. In the end it was only the fact that my husband and I had already bought our little farm in Batlow that made me move back to the mainland.
Since then Tasmania has been the path not taken that I wonder about, every now then; the life I might have lived. And so returning is like a funny homecoming.
It seems to me only right that a place as rich in creative people and natural inspiration as Tasmania should have such a unique and innovative writers festival and I’m absolutely delighted to be included amongst its very illustrious guests. So much so that I’m turning up 7 months early to spread the word and give Tasmanians a taste of the insights into writing and publishing and living with stories that the Festival will deliver.
2. You’ve had an amazingly productive and successful writing career so far, with much more to come. What would be your stand-out moment thus far?
To me, the best moments are the candid conversations you have with other writers and readers… the bizarre, often hilarious discussions that crime writers have about how best to kill someone (fictionally of course) or hide a body, shared insights about the craft, the industry and the life of writing, the awkward embarrassing moments, the rules that nobody seems to tell you about until you’ve broken them.
Books are, I suppose, in themselves conversations so perhaps it’s not surprising that these are the moments which most inspire me.
3. For readers who may not have met Rowly yet, how would you describe him and the world he lives in? What other book or tv series might have the same feeling/atmosphere?
In the early 1930s, Australian society polarized. Conservative values clashed with the libertine lifestyles of the ‘bright young things’ of the era. Whilst many gasped under the crushing weight of the Great Depression, there were those who flourished. Communism appealed to the fertile minds of the unemployed and disaffected working classes, and the establishment gathered in secret fascist armies.
This was the world of Rowland Sinclair, an artist and a gentleman, son of the establishment, friend of the artistic left. The series follows Rowland as he travels through the decade in the company of his bohemian comrades, becoming unwittingly and repeatedly embroiled in all manner of murder and scandal.
The series has been described as “Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie” – The Age. In terms of film, there is a touch of The Great Gatsby about it, the political and social commentary of Upstairs Downstairs as well as Foyles War and perhaps the whimsy of Midsomer Murders.
4. How has your relationship with Rowly changed over the years, as you watch the world he lives in become darker?
I have known my imaginary gentleman sleuth, Rowland Sinclair, for nine books now, four years of his life, ten years of mine. In that time he has always stood in the periphery of my vision, regarding me with a kind of amused resignation, watching me as I watch him. We have an understanding, he and I.
With each book I have, admittedly, become increasingly involved with Rowland, to the point that he is now all but real to not just me, but also my family. My husband and I will often talk about Rowland as if he were an old friend with a tendency of finding trouble. You know the kind.
I do worry about him because, unlike him, I have the advantage of hindsight. I know that much of what he does fear will happen, and horrors that he cannot in 1935 imagine will come to pass. And yet I feel compelled to send him out to explore, to find the hidden stories, to bring back observances of a darkening which may perhaps foreshadow our own future.
5. You’ve said that when you began the Rowland Sinclair series, with its exploration of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, that it was very much an historical exercise. How have you felt, watching the events that unfold in your novels begin to take form again in the 2010s?
I began writing about a young artist living in the 1930s, an era of social upheaval and political hysteria and polarisation. The decade was the vat in which fermented all the passions, prejudices and philosophies that gave rise to the Second World War.
In each book Rowland is faced with the early manifestations of what would later play out as the Holocaust. In trying to understand his world, I have read the newspapers of the time and scrutinised the events and personalities of the early thirties.
There were things that were startlingly familiar, a recognisable pattern of events and manipulations, a similar demonisation of sections of the community and the use of fear in order to justify contraventions of the rule of law and human rights. As Rowland Sinclair has become progressively more uneasy, progressively more outraged, so too have I. Sadly, though the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries are set in the 1930s, I am not necessarily writing about the past.
6. What adventures are on your writerly horizon?
I’ve just submitted a novel to my publisher—a thriller, which I hope will come out sometime next year. It’s set in the US, but its heroes are both Tasmanian expatriates. This particular story could only be set in America, but I find that I can only view the contemporary world as an Australian, so my main characters need that outlook too.
Later this year I have a piece in a US Anthology of bestselling and award-winning mystery writers which will be put out by Hachette. It’s a little surreal to sharing billing with the likes of Jeffrey Deaver, Anne Perry and Rhys Bowen. I wrote the story very quickly before I had time to get stage fright.
In the next few months I’ll write the tenth Rowland Sinclair Mystery and another standalone novel which I’ve promised my US publishers, and finish a speculative fiction that’s been a labour of whim and is nearly done. I’m working with Robert Gott on a series of stage plays which will bring the characters of his books and mine onto the same stage. I hope also to be undertaking a book tour of the US with some of my colleagues later this year.
And finally, and most importantly, I’m coming to Tasmania!