Interview With Brian Stoddart
Why don’t you begin by sharing a little about yourself.
I grew up in NZ, did a PhD in the history of modern India at the University of Western Australia, and that started a long association with Asia. Professionally I became an academic teaching in Australia, Canada, the Caribbean and elsewhere, before becoming a university executive and Vice Chancellor/President at la Trobe University in Australia. Since then I have worked as a consultant on World Bank, Asian Development Bank and European Union projects in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as well as writing for the media and academic sites on international relations and associated matters. In addition to that I give lectures on cruise ships, am interested in photography and mountain biking as well as art and antique collecting. And, of course, writing crime novels.
Could you tell us a bit about your latest book?
The latest book is “A Straits Settlement”, the third in the Superintendent Le Fanu series set in Madras in India during the 1920s as Britain faces increased opposition to imperial rule. Two cases take him across the Bay of Bengal to Penang in the Straits Settlements in pursuit of both a murderer and an artefact thief. Along the way he meets another of the complicated women who appear in his life, and is also offered a serious opportunity to leave India for a job in the Settlements. Through all this run the themes of Indian independence, police and official reactions, racial tension and all the other twists that go with a colonial condition.
How long have you been writing, and how many books have you published to date?
As noted, this is the third novel I have done, and they follow eighteen books of nonfiction with a couple more of those to come. I began writing as an academic then also started writing journalistically and broadcasting that taught me about wider audiences. I have written on Indian history and politics, on the social history of sport, a biography of an Indian Civil Service, and a memoir of living in Damascus shortly before the current conflict (“A House in Damascus: Before the Fall”) that was a #1 on Amazon for Middle East Travel and Middle East General. I am now also writing screenplays and television scripts.
Of all the books you've written, do you have a favourite?
Because all the books have been different, the favourite is usually the one that appeared most recently! Every time a work comes out I get a real buzz because it is an achievement, and I like the sense of that achievement because it drives me on to the next one (or several, as is usually the case with me).
Do you have a favourite character? If so, why?
Chris Le Fanu is a favourite because I have created him and put him in a British Raj setting that allows me to tell stories in a way I could not as an academic. I also like a real “character” I wrote about, Arthur Galletti (“A People’s Collector in the British Raj: Arthur Galletti”) who was an Anglo-Italian member of the Indian Civil Service in Madras who was the genuine square peg in a round hole – and some of his traits rubbed off on Le Fanu.
Among my favourite characters written by others are John Rebus (of course) by Ian Rankin; Bernie Gunther (Philip Kerr); Montalbano (Andrea Camilleri);and those created by the likes of Sarah Paretsky, Denise Mina, Jeff Siger, Paker Bilal, John Enright, Greg McGee writing both as himself and as Alix Bosco; Valentina Giambanco and many others.
Why did you decide to write in the crime fiction genre?
The modern “crime” novel is in many ways is about social history, because invariably it now scours the social conditions that propel characters to act and react the way they do. Unlike in the classic form of the crime novel, the modern works are more about circumstances and context than about the “puzzle”, and they develop the characters a lot more as a result. In my case, the British India setting allows me to explore the full range of tensions that marked the imperial world, and crime, justice and resolution allow all those dramas to be played to the full.
What do you enjoy most about writing in the crime fiction genre?
Probably encountering the strange turns that characters take when I least expect it. I am a minimal planner (although as the series develops that is becoming less so by necessity). Because of that, the stories and the characters almost take on a life of their own once I am in “the zone”, and that is great because of the uncertainty and the inspiration that results.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
In many respects I have always been a “writer”. What has happened over the years is that I have developed more as a writer, not just by shifting through fields and genres but also dealing with wider readerships and learning different skills that improve me as a writer. Books have always been in my life and writers always important. All that said, it has been a joy to become part of the “crime” scene where other writers are so hugely supportive and encouraging.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas originate? Do you have a certain writing routine?
In mechanical terms I set a minimum of 2000 words a day and will often get well beyond that once on “a roll”. I tend to start in the morning and aim to finish by early afternoon. The first thing usually is to read and rectify the previous chapter I have written both to remind myself of where I am up to and to try and write as tightly as possible. Because I write historical crime fiction the ideas are set firmly in the historical record, then the characters start to develop actions around that. Ideas for those actions can come to me at any time so capturing them becomes important.
Do you have a favourite author, or writing inspiration?
I have a lot of favourites, including those listed above. I really look for style and setting, and that leads me to a lot of “foreign” crime where I can learn a lot about description and dialogue. In addition, I am influenced a lot by really great crime TV series where the writers accomplish great things through dialogue and development – Anthony Horowitz and “Foyle’s War” springs to mind, as does Neil Cross and “Luther” and all of Sally Wainwright’s work.
How do you research your books?
Given my background and training, a lot of research for the crime novels has been done, at least in the setting. Most of the research as a result focuses on detail like weapons of the period, aspects of the Madras locale, accuracy in names etc. More broadly, though, I am a genuine “archive rat” so do a lot of research on anything I write.
What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I read as much as I can because that is part of learning. Then, I am a keen photographer, mainly landscape, because I find that very creative. In a related way I am very keen on collecting art and being around artists. And I collect the Straits Chinese porcelain that appears in “A Straits Settlement” because each piece has a story to tell in its own right.
Are you working on another book?
I am working on another crime novel and on a couple of non-fictions, one a true crime and the other more a piece of mainstream social history. But I find though all three are different, the writing feeds into each in a curiously similar way.
You can find out more out Brian and his books at his Amazon page.
A Straits Settlement is available at Amazon