Short, Sharp Interview: Brian Stoddart

a madras miasmaPDB: Can you pitch A MADRAS MIASMA in 25 words or less?

Chris Le Fanu, 1920s Indian Police Service: war weary; complicated personal life, fights colleagues over political change; solves murder exposing an India Britain wants hidden.

PDB: Which music, books, films or television shows have floated your boat recently?

Handel’s Italian operas are continuing favourites as great demonstrations of other ways to tell a story. And gypsy jazz from the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli originals through to Bireli Lagrene and others is still fascinating. Eric Clapton and Van Morrison are always there. Robbie Williams, John Butler and Adele are great, and I was a great fan of the Winehouse.

Adrian McKinty’s trilogy set during the Northern Ireland Troubles is wonderfully written. I was guided towards Megan Abbott by other writers, and can see why, great work. P.M. Newton’s two books set in Sydney are very good. I’m a big fan of Jason Webster, and really like John Enright’s books set in American Samoa. I have long been a follower of Andrea Camilleri’s work. And I really like Jeff Siger’s Kaldis series set on Mykonos

My favourite show of late has been the Sherlock TV series with Brendan Cumberbatch which displays brilliant writing and production.  I watched The Killing in both versions, and re-watched the entire series of The Wire. The writing in Homeland was patchy, I thought, but I liked the Scandinavian film versions of the Stieg Larsson books.

PDB: Is it possible for a writer to be an objective reader?

Yes, in the sense that like any other reader, a writer can get swept up in someone else’s stories and prose. In that way, the writer is also a learner, because someone else can always do it better – the biggest compliment to a writer is when someone says “I wish I’d written that!” Learning the craft, then, means you need to read other works carefully and objectively.

Which also means, of course, that the answer to the question can be No. Learning also means deconstructing and analysing, perhaps more closely than other readers, and being hyper-critical of plotting, characterisation and, yes, writing.  The writer, then, is perhaps a tougher critic than some other readers.

PDB: Do you have any interest in writing for films, theatre or television?

Yes, I have even done some courses and have a couple of scripts lying around, as well as plans for a TV series or two. Our eldest daughter is a script writer starting out, having just completed a Masters degree in the craft, so that adds interest as well. In earlier days I was Historical Advisor to the television series Bodyline put together in Australia by the late Byron Kennedy and the now-famous George Miller, and I also worked on another television series, and those experiences sparked the original interest.

PDB: How much research goes into each book?

As an historical crime novelist there is a lot of research involved, but my academic research base on India gives a very good base from which to start! The research now is more atmospheric, and practical in the sense that I swan about Madras/Chennai looking for scene settings and backdrops, and to remind myself about the colours and smells and sounds and all the rest. I do a lot of 1920s photo and art research now as well, because the visuals are important in trying to shape descriptions. But for me the research is a bonus – I was always an archives rat, and love following the trail because, in its own way, it is like crime fiction: marshal the clues and order the evidence.

PDB: How useful or important are social media for you as a writer?

Very important, as for anyone now, I think. I began dealing seriously with the social media when my most recent non-fiction book, A House in Damascus: Before the Fall came out only in e-form. I did that deliberately to get involved with the new publishing forms, and with the new e-versions of promotion. I learned an enormous amount out of that experience, and continue to learn because the pace of change is so great. It is fascinating to meet writers still more moored in the traditional publishing forms, puzzled by some of what is going on around them.

PDB: What’s on the cards for 2014?

The second in the Le Fanu series is now well underway, to appear from Crime Wave Press later this year or early next. Then there is a non-fiction work to finish, based on my family’s migration to New Zealand story but set more as a story of cultural transition as a bunch of Scots-Irish-Cornish end up in a very different setting. Meanwhile, I’m still doing my blog, guest posts to other blogs, and writing for several online sites on a range of subjects stretching from India to sport and many other things. I’ll also be a guest lecturer on a cruise ship for the second time this year.

Bio: I grew up in New Zealand, where I did my first two degrees and taught briefly in a high school before going to Australia to do a PhD on the history of modern India.

My research focus spread into the culture and history of sport, and I established degree programs in sports management and sport media, and worked as a radio sports editor for a while in addition to my academic work. That work took me around the world, and among other things I researched and played cricket in the Caribbean.

Then I got into university management which saw me live in Malaysia for a while and work in several other countries, especially throughout Asia. I ended up as a university President, then became an international consultant on higher education development, and that has seen me live for long spells in Lao PDR, Cambodia, Syria and Jordan along with shorter spells elsewhere.

All the while I have written a lot, somewhere around fifteen books of non-fiction in one way or another plus all the academic journal writing, and now I have spread into fiction.