Fiona: Name? Brian Stoddart
Fiona: Where are you from?
I am now based in Queenstown New Zealand but have lived and worked in a dozen different countries as an academic, consultant and writer. Now I also do lectures on international cruise ships and write columns on international affairs.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
Latest news is that my most recent crime novel A Straits Settlement is entered for the Ngaio Marsh awards in New Zealand and the Ned Kelly awards in Australia. Currently also involved in some other writing projects
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I have in a sense always been a writer, but for many years that was focused on non-fiction from an academic base. Then I started writing for wider audiences and worked through biography into memoir. From there is was an easy step into fiction.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Proabably about ten years ago when the actual writing started to become a predominant part of my life. While I have continued as a consultant in higher education and other things, my conscious focus has been with writing now for several years.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
My very first book was in the academic field and that was a natural evolution in my growth as a professional historian. My first crime novel emerged as a natural step from writing other things while reading a lot of crime fiction, to becoming a crime fiction writer myself.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
My crime fiction is set in British India so is based directly on my original academic historical research. Because of that, readers say they enjoy the scene setting and the historical context that tells them a lot about that colonial story. I try to focus on setting a great sense of place, on creating characters who are believable in that place, and on using the factual story of that period to raise a believable plot line.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
A Madras Miasma was the first in the Le Fanu series. Madras (now renamed Chennai) was a major town in British India, and a place where I have spent a lot of time living and researching. The Miasma reference came from a wish to create an air of mystery, and to throw in some alliteration!
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
The Le Fanu series aims in many ways to tell the story of British imperialism in India from several different standpoints, and to show something of the pressures that applied in different ways to all the players. It was a society in change that threw up tensions and moral choices, and Le Fanu himself is at the heart of that with all his professional challenges and trials that extend directly from his journey through the colonial landscape
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
One thing I am very pleased about is that reviewers from Chennai (formerly Madras) say I have “got it right” in telling the story of the city and the region. The works are based solidly on my research of “what happened” through those times in the 1920s and 1930s, and the characters are set into that historically accurate locale. Then, some of the characters who appear were real people like, for example, Lord Willingdon who was Governor of Madras straight after World War 1. Other characters display stories and idiosyncrasies that belonged to other real life people who I discovered through the research.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
There are a lot of writers (in the broad sense) who have had an influence on me. Some were academic – like George Rude who wrote about people as individuals in the French Revolution. I have always tried to discover those sort of stories ever since, and that now appears in my fiction I think. There are a lot of books that have an impact at different points. In recent years, for example, David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service have moved me greatly because, again, they are about forgotten people, American soldiers as individuals in the Middle East. It is the books that make you think that have the most impact, by combining excellent writing in the technical sense with a great sense of explanation and understanding.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Tough question because there are so many favourite authors for me: Ian Rankin, Andrea Camilleri, Michael Dibdin, Denise Mina, Phillip Kerr, Charles Cumming, Parker Bilal, Fred Vargas, Michael Connolly, Chan Ho-kei and many others. Looking at a list like this tells me I am fascinated by “crime and place” with the crime serving as the entrée to explaining much about specific cultures and places. Among the newer writers who do the same I would put Jane Harper (The Dry, set in Australia, is wonderfully good), Valentina Giambanco, Marlon James, Sarah Ward, Steph Brodribb, Anna Jaquiery – again, they are all really good at place and characters.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Over the years a lot of universities and academic funding agencies supported the archival and other research that allowed me to accumulate all the materials and knowledge that now feed into the crime fiction I do.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Well, it is now my fulltime focus and avocation so in that sense the answer is “yes”.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I don’t think so. Some readers got irritated with some of the things I had my protagonist do, especially in his personal life, but that was part of making his life story as realistic as possible. Some heroes in other books seem never to have a life challenge, and I for one find that hard to relate to!
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Like most people it probably started with reading. I was always a keen reader and that leads to seeing differences in purpose and style, and by natural process that leads on to writing. I wrote a little poetry and prose while at school then transferred the writing focus into the academic work. From there the chance to work in radio and TV and film allowed me to learn other skills and build on the base.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
I am working on a new crime novel and also on a true crime book. Different genres, of course, but mutually reinforcing.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I wish that from the start of the crime series I had kept a detailed spreadsheet of characters and their actions. Basically I am a punster rather than a planner as a writer but with a series, of course, what happened before is important, and no-one’s mind can keep track of all the details. So now I am having to do all that retrospectively.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I go back to India and Chennai as often as possible in order to refresh the atmospherics. Even though I write historical crime fiction, the cultural context is a fabulous reminder as well as inspiration for other ideas. More broadly, I do travel quite a bit doing different things and, again, that is a great source of ideas and angles and settings. In addition I often do archival search in places where I go and that adds further stock.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Hans Kemp at Crime Wave Press did a fabulous job on the covers (although the eagle eyed South Indians think the scenes are too much North Indian! You can never win).
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
This again relates to a series. The first Le Fanu book I really had no problem writing at all, apart from patching up storylines and all the rest. The subsequent books, however, have to also relate to what has gone on before, and threading that in while creating new stories and that is not straightforward.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
In a sense I learned I could write fiction. There have been some lovely reviews and responses from other writers I admire. For me, getting to fiction was an evolution and I was never sure I could do it. Now other people tell me I can, and that means a lot.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead?
Ha. From the beginning I have thought that Le Fanu should be played by Rupert Graves (Lestrade in Sherlock alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). I sent the first books to his agents but don’t know whether or not he has seen them.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Same as anybody else I think: don’t give up, keep learning, keep persevering, learn how to promote the work, talk to other writers, try and enjoy what you do.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Keep telling your friends about Le Fanu! But also, keep giving me the great feedback and encouragement because I really do learn from you. Many things that now happen to Le Fanu have been designed on the basis of reader comments.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Right now I am about to start into Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisi Dobbs, having just finished dKeigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Subject X and having re-read a couple of Michael Connolly’s Bosch series. Have also just finished some non-fiction on match fixing in cricket and a biography of Sir Mark Sykes who was one of the architects of the Sykes-Picot secret agreement that set the course for what we now see in the Middle East.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Not really because it was probably a baby’s book, my mother was an avid reader. The first things I really remember are A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (which I now have in first editions), Robert Louis Stevenson, a lot of English comics like Tiger and Lion, then a lot of books on cricket.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
I love great humour so really like people in the style of Michael McIntyre who find absurdity in the every day. Then I both laugh and cry at the body politic these days because there is real absurdity. I despair where people suffer, especially so in places like Syria where I actually lived and worked for a while and came away with a wonderful set of experiences.
Fiona: Is there one person pass or present you would meet and why?
In the present lineup, probably one of the great TV writers like Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley; Last Tango in Halifax) or a singer-songwriter like Jimmy Buffett. Of those who have left, definitely David Bowie.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why ?
“He Could Write!” Because it is the greatest compliment I can give anyone, including “She Can Write”.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
Very serious photographer. Collect a lot of art, and Straits Chinese porcelain.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
These days I really like great TV series like The Bridge, Line of Duty, The Game and all the rest. I am looking for the great writing that enables great acting.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music?
Like a lot of food including Italian, Indian, Mediterranean and all the rest as well as the accompanying wine (but these days have access to the great central Otago pinot noir). Agnostic on colours but like blues and greens with a fair bit of red. Music is a mix of baroque classical including Handel opera; singer-songwriters like Bonnie Rait, Willie Nelson and John Hiatt; international artists like Feyruz and Amaarn Malik; jazzers like Birele Lagren and Martin Taylor.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I played a lot of good cricket including in the Caribbean but would like to have been a lot better a player. The same goes for golf.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
Find me at: https://brianstoddartwriter.com/
After a long career around the globe as a university teacher, researcher and administrator, Brian Stoddart is now a consultant and writer. He has published fifteen books of non-fiction covering mainly sport, Asian affairs and, more recently, global events.
He writes regularly for the press and several websites, appears on radio and television, is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and seminars around the world, and also works as a speaker-lecturer on cruise ships. Brian Stoddart maintains his own blog at www.professorbrianstoddart.com.
Books: A Madras Miasma, The Pallampur Predicament, A Straits Settlement