I enjoyed his book earlier in October and it was a dead cert shoe-in for my pick of the month, until the equally excellent A Shelter of Others by Charles Dodd White crossed my sweaty palms. An honourable draw has been declared and the supreme accolade, second only to the Man Booker of Col's Criminal Library Pick of the Month for October will be shared.
My review of A Madras Miasma is here.
I was gloriously ignorant of the fact that Brian has his own website until I did a bit of browsing - you can visit him here. He also has a Twitter presence - @BrianStoddart
And it would be remiss of me not to point you in the direction of his publisher - Crime Wave Press - publishers with a mainly Asian slant on crime fiction. Catch them here.
Here we go.......and thanks to Brian for his time,
What’s the day job?
These days, international consultancy on higher education reform, and that has taken me to Syria, Jordan, Lao and Cambodia, among others. Before that, I was a university researcher and teacher and, later a senior executive. That work took me all over the world and gave me the chance to watch a lot of different cultures in action.
I have spent an hour or so stalking you around the internet. You have about a dozen or so non-fiction books to your name on various subjects; sport, especially cricket, something on the British Raj in India and (ignoring a few), a book on Syria which may or may not pre-date the Arab Spring.
Yes, the book on Damascus tells of my experiences living in the Old City for several months right up to the eve of what is now the Syrian crisis. That won a couple of awards for creative non-fiction, and was an important step towards writing the fiction. So, too, was the biography of a fascinating member of the India Civil Service, a book that built on earlier research on India that permeates the Le Fanu books. The sport work was part of my broad social history interest, especially in the old British Empire in which India was at the heart of development. All that work taught me how to write for and think about different audiences, how to use research, how to tell the stories, and how to focus interest.
A Madras Miasma is your first published fiction, was this your first serious attempt at a novel?
Strangely enough, yes. I had long thought I could not write fiction, but as I branched into new areas of writing I began to reassess that view, and began to think how I might write crime fiction especially, because that genre has long been my fiction of choice. The background in history as a profession, and in India as an area of interest both came together. So I sat down with some ideas, a context, a basic story line and set out to write the book, which turned into A Madras Miasma. For me it was telling stories in a different way, and viewed that way the "writing fiction" challenge was reduced. A reasonable confidence in knowing the locale, the context and the history gave a great platform on which to write a story.
Presumably your background was helpful in research for the novel, as a reader though I’m curious how you established the setting, can you offer a few pointers on the process please?
I love what I call "crime and place" writing, and Madras now called Chennai seemed like a great choice given the centrality of India to the world development now, and its importance to the Empire. Being seen as less important to the Raj than other major cities also gave Madras more of an atmosphere. That allowed me to recall a city that I have spent time in over many years, and I did go back for a spell there while I was writing the book, trying to see the place in a new light. The history that I knew from the 1920s gave a great backdrop, and so did the characters I had discovered through the research, because their interactions allowed for many ideas that I used. The colour and sense and tempo of the city really helped fire up the contours of the story line and the characters. The backbone of that city is still there, and ready to be traced even more, so more books on the way.
Have you always written fiction or is this a recent departure for you? What inspired you to cross-over?
Well, amazingly, I had written almost no fiction at all. I won third prize for a poem published at school, but that was about it. The cross-over was really a result of process over time, the realisation that I could write something different and something creative that would at the same time perhaps entertain other people. It was also because in doing the research on the British in Madras, I realised the power of characters and personalities that sometimes never got into the history - the crime fiction allowed me to do that.
Are there any unpublished gems in the bottom drawer?
No, nothing at all, apart from the new one, and the ideas for the third Le Fanu
From start to finish how long did A Madras Miasma take from conception to completion?
It spread over about a year from start to submission. I began writing it while on assignment in Cambodia, so the expat environment help stimulate the thinking. The full draft took about four months, the subsequent drafts about the same, and then Crime Wave Press did the rest.
How easy was it to find a publisher for the book? A lot of authors I have read in the past year or so, have had to take the self-publishing route.
Like everyone else, it was not easy. I shopped the book to agents and publishers while I was busy writing, and got no joy there. One great thing was entering the book in the Crimefest Debut Dagger for the CWA, and pitching it to some great agents who were really positive and helpful. That sent me back to a rewrite, and then I found Crime Wave Press who were looking for Asian-based crime fiction. Luckily Tom and Hans liked the book and came back straight away with an agreement to publish. These days there are the mainstream publishers, self-publishing, and then between them are the growingly important innovators like Tom and Hans, and they are going to become more important.
I’m aware that there is a second Detectvie Le Fanu book – A Pallampur Predicament waiting in the wings, was the second book, trickier than the first to write, or in some respects easier?
I thought a lot about the second one because I had read a lot of other writers who reckoned the second was tougher. Reading those writers was helpful, and I did probably approach the second one in a more structured way than the first. But I also found it easier to broaden the approach and the characters and the plotlines, having been through the experience of the first Le Fanu. I have a suspicion the third might be even more challenging as characters deepen.
Will we see a lot more of Le Fanu in the future? Does the character have legs or are there plans afoot for a different direction, both in character and setting?
Yes, the second Le Fanu is imminent, the third is in planning and early writing, and the character is set up to become a series that will be essentially about one man's traversing of the 1920s and 1930s. Beyond that there are also a couple more non-fictions planned, and I do toy with some ideas for something more contemporary but also set in Asia. That is a little way off
Any modern influences on your stories?
In crime fiction: Rankin and all the other tartans; lots of writers from a range of other countries and exotic locations (like Parker Bilal, Barbara Nadel, Jeff Siger, Quentin Bates, Ruth Downie, Philip Kerr and a host of others). Other writers include Jane Smiley, David Lodge, Tim Parks, Richard Russo and others. Non-fiction writers like David Finkel (whose two books on Iraq are just marvellous if chilling), Robert Darnton on the French Revolution, and Antony Beevor on wars are also a source of inspiration.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
I set out to write at least 2,000 words a day once the serious writing starts, and that will sometimes hit 5-6,000 if I get on a roll. Each day starts with a read and an edit of the say before. Then every week or so I will go back and read the thing from the beginning, and that helps set up an editing regime. As I go I also follow up on historical detail checking. Getting the dialogue right is a major preoccupation, because fiction is still new to me and I am still learning. Once the main draft is done, then I go back and redraft ruthlessly - a habit that carries over from the non-fiction work.
Do you insert family, friends and colleagues into your characters? Would they recognise themselves?
It is more some historical figures who creep in but are given some different slants to fit the story. I don't think any friends will find themselves there - but some friends find it hard to read the crime fiction because they "know" me and my earlier works!
Are there any subjects off limits as far as your writing is concerned?
I am feeling my way into this fictional genre, and at this stage I would say I am not in the "dark" zone. I find some "hard" noir too hard with its extremely graphic violence, much of which is aimed at women and kids - that is too hard for me. I am more interested in capturing atmosphere and issues and relationships, with the storyline being the vehicle to describe that. So I guess the actual act of murder is secondary for me to the spreading lines that the act helps set off.
What’s been the most satisfying moment of your writing career so far?
Having so many people kindly saying that they have enjoyed A Madras Miasma, and have learned something from it. That includes other writers whose work I admire, so having them say nice things is terrific.
What are the last five books you’ve read?
The Gordon Ferris Douglas Brodie series, and the 4 and 5 books in Paul Thomas' Ihaka series set in my homeland NZ. I often read like this, grabbing a series to see the development
Who do you read and enjoy?
Andrea Camilleri would be near the top of the list, always. Peter Temple's work is just marvellous. The early Kate Atkinson (Case Histories). I always really liked Michael Dibdin, too, set in Italy. More broadly, I devoured Malcolm Bradbury's campus novels, and those by Tom Sharpe.
Is there any one book you wished you’d written?
Oh there are several! Great writing is always compelling. But one notable would be Tim Parks' A Season With Verona. He follows Verona's football club for a year, but the book is about Italy. Just a wonderful tour de force. Another would be Rajiv Chandrasekaran's marvellous account of life in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
What’s the best thing about crime writing?
Being able to create characters and situations that bring to life the historical events that provide the context - and then there is the circle of crime writers I am meeting and who are all so supportive.
Favourite activity when not working?
Reading, a natural concomitant, I guess. I like photography, golf, music, and being in other cultures
If I check back in a couple of years’ time, where do you hope to be with the fiction writing?
After two years, there will hopefully be four books in the Le Fanu series, with the man himself having grown as a person for the readers who will also have learned even more about the trajectory of modern India's stories.