Not your average Agatha Christie

Sulari Gentill speaks with Honi about her experiences in the Australian publishing industry, and how it feels when your creations come to life.

“I’d love to be an Agatha Christie, but I don’t only want to be an Agatha Christie,” laughs the woman sitting across from me in the lobby bar of the Hyatt Regency.

Here, we are surrounded by noise and action. Behind me a man in a suit with a bottle of Veuve brags of his wealth to a younger woman in a little black dress, and in front, a woman accompanied by her two toddlers yells at a receptionist about the speed of the wifi in her room. The atmosphere is chaotic, but I take little notice of anything apart from my conversation partner.

Sulari Gentill is, without exception, the most animated person I have ever met. Her eyes are warm, her smile expressive, and her conversation engaging — within an hour of our meeting I feel like I’ve been friends with her for years. With a cup of English Breakfast in hand, she treats me to the story of how she acquired her beautifully embroidered coat; on one of her many work trips to Sydney she noticed it sitting on the sale rack of the Gorman near her hotel and simply had to have it. In hindsight, I’m sure Sulari could have spent thirty minutes explaining what her favourite brand of cereal was and I still would have given her my unequivocal attention. The ease with which she manages to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary is testament to her skill as a storyteller.

Sulari has been writing professionally for a decade, and is most well known for her crime fiction series starring protagonist Rowland Sinclair — a young, wealthy artist-cum-detective living a bohemian lifestyle in Sydney during the Great Depression. That isn’t to suggest she is a one hit wonder. Sulari has also written the “Hero Trilogy” of teen fantasy novels that take inspiration from Greek mythology, and has just finished a play that she’s currently pitching to the Melbourne Theatre Company. However, Rowland is Sulari’s most noteworthy creation; not just for the audience, but for herself. After eight novels her relationship with one Mr Sinclair has developed to the point where she views him as more friend than literary creation.

“I’m currently writing the ninth Rowland Sinclair book and I do find myself influenced by what he thinks,” she says. “I know that sounds quite bizarre but after a while characters start to have independent existences.”

This theme is the major narrative driving force of her newest novel, Crossing the Lines, which is due to be published this August. While reading an advanced copy, it is immediately apparent that the novel borrows deeply from both her experiences in the publishing industry, and personally as an author.

“This [Crossing the Lines] was all about exploring that whole relationship between writer and protagonist which I’ve always been interested about because I’ve been living that through my other series,” she says.

Crossing the Lines is clearly a departure from her regular style of writing, that fact itself being a self-referential theme in the work. The novel follows two authors as they write about each other, and develop relationships with their ‘creations’. It is unclear whether Madeleine d’Leon, a rural lawyer and part-time crime novelist, or Edward McGinnity, a wealthy orphan and literary writer, is the author or the subject. Although it deals with a crime, this is not a crime novel per se — it is meta-fiction, psychologically compelling and very self-aware.

Madeleine d’Leon is clearly based on Sulari herself; both have worked in corporate law, both are crime fiction novelists with a brand based around a well known protagonist (in Maddie’s case, an early maid from the 1910s who solves crimes while dealing with early feminist and class themes). They even look and act alike; both short, Sri Lankan women with kind, open smiles and endearing senses of humour. Edward McGinnity, in turn, is clearly based in part on Rowland Sinclair.

By drawing such direct inspiration from her own experiences, Sulari could have easily turned Crossing the Lines into a self-indulgent write off. Thankfully her novel is no such thing. It’s an insightful character study, with as much to say about the publishing industry and commercial realities of writing as it does about the philosophy of authorship.

In an early chapter, during a meeting between Madeleine and her literary agent, the two discuss the elephant in the room — the fact that Madeleine’s publishers like the character Veronica Killwilly, her murder-solving maid. When her agent tells her that the publishers have “spent a fortune” building her brand, Madeleine responds with: “I’m a person, not a brand.”

Her agent, however, swiftly replies: “Not anymore. You’re Madeleine d’Leon, synonymous with the working-class feminist heroine who solves crimes by looking at what people throw away.”

This conversation mirrors one of the difficulties that Sulari has faced in her writing career. When her first Rowland Sinclair novel, A Few Right Thinking Men, was published in 2008 the reviews considered it to be a literary novel at the time. However after A Decline in Prophets, her second Sinclair novel, she began to be widely considered as specifically a crime fiction writer.

“I won the Davitt Award, which is a crime fiction award, and ever since then the reviews have been focusing on the crime and the rollicking good time aspects,” she explains.

“That’s fine, I’ve got no problems with being a genre writer — I’m proud of that. But I don’t want to be boxed in.”

“The problem is that if you want to expand [your repertoire] then you really have to work against your own branding which is quite the risk. You’re not confined in terms of your imagination, but the commercial reality of it [publishing].”

It’s a shame that critical recognition of her “brand” seems to focus more on the genre of her work rather than the way in which it is presented. Sulari’s writing style is extremely recognisable to those familiar with it. Her work is consistently well structured, and her use of language is both functional and appropriate. Unlike many writers, Sulari is never grandiose without reason.

“I think it’s my legal training. One thing legal training teaches you is to pick your words precisely and accurately the first time. A lot of writers grab at words that are around-about what they mean, but I use words that mean exactly what I mean when I put them down. It just means that my first drafts are very similar to the finished product,” she says as she pours herself another cup of tea.

Crossing the Lines may very well earn Sulari the critical recognition she deserves. It’s a clever psychological study, and a prime example of contemporary Australian meta-fiction.