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Colin Cotterill From Issue 15 -Nov/Dec 2006

DISCO FOR THE DEPARTED, Colin Cotterill’s latest in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series, has in and of itself become a friend of mine. I’ve hugged it; I’ll admit that to you now. The Mystery Booksellers Association feel the same way, without the hugging part. They gave him a DILY to let him and the world know that his book, 33 TEETH, was the book they most enjoyed selling in 2005.

I met him in the dealer room in Madison, I at my table; he at his. I was alone except for a large pile of buttons; he had a line made up of excited people that was beginning to wind in on itself. When his line was gone I sent a liaison over to garner his attention. Damned if the man wasn’t as intelligent, funny, gracious and accessible as I’d hoped. His hello consisted of a wave and a huge smile. He’d left his voice in San Antonio. Luckily. I’d gotten the interview done before he left for tour of America.

Jennifer Jordan: The character of Dr. Siri is unlike any protagonist I’ve read before. There is almost a sense of a man resigned to his fate yet a man who is still able to take joy in the simple things in life. He gently persuades instead of cudgeling, he belongs to a strict political party yet is very open minded and forgiving. And the twining nature of doctor and shaman is wonderful. What inspired his creation?

Colin Cotterill: I guess in many ways Siri emerged from the conflict I found between Buddhism and Communism and the relationship between science and the supernatural. There’s a complacency that comes from knowing your oppressors will get their comeuppance in
the next life so you can sit back and watch them oppress without getting too upset about it. I liked the idea that Siri could voice his opinions about his own communist party to give us a point of view we wouldn’t normally get.

In this part of the world the lines between science and spiritualism are fuzzy. There seems to be no contradiction about medical personnel administering medications and recommending the patients say a few prayers to the house spirits for back-up. In many ways I think it’s the Asian way of keeping an open mind about the afterlife that allows them to get the natural world into perspective. In order to embody all of these tangled philosophies, I needed Siri to have lived a full and unusual life to be able to speak on these topics from experience.

JJ: The relationship between Dr. Siri and his nurse, Dtui, has been thoroughly enjoyable throughout the series. The scene in DISCO FOR THE DEPARTED in which Dtui and Siri sat together with their feet up discussing a dilemma of hers was priceless! Will they continue to work together?

CC: Women in Laos aren’t backward when it comes to expressing their opinions. They’ve been spared the role of sublimation that’s shackled women in other Asian countries. Nurse Dtui has a deep respect for Siri but she isn’t afraid to tell him off or speak her mind. In Disco we learn that Dtui is due to head off to the Eastern Bloc to train as a forensic pathologist. This would take her away from home for three years. But in the next book, Anarchy and Old Dogs, there are plenty of shocks and surprises in store for both Dtui and Siri. I think readers will be astounded.

JJ: The sub-plot with poor Mr. Geung was both entertaining and a testament to will power and loyalty. Such a gentle soul stands out in stark relief to the sometimes harsh life in mid-1970’s Laos. Was that your intention?

CC: A friend here teaches literature at the University. She tells me Mr. Geung symbolizes the struggle of the common Lao to overcome the difficulties of life. When I wrote this book I thought I’d just sent him off on an adventure, but having read it again, it seems she could be right. My subconscious turned him into something deeper. Perhaps there’s some element of Chancy Gardener (Being There) about him. His simplicity inspires morality in others.

JJ: Laos itself is a prominent character in your books. How did you find your way to Southeast Asia when you began in England?

CC: My odyssey began in Australia which was the furthest point I could find from England without leaving the planet. Australia had me working with Southeast Asian refugees which in turn had me curious about where they’d come from. I arrived in Laos in 1990 on a UNESCO teacher-training project and stayed there for four years. Now I’m living in the north of Thailand and get across to Laos several times a year for research and to do work on my illicit book smuggling operation. (details at www.colincotterill.com)

JJ: What inspired you to begin writing?

CC: This dovetails into the next question. I’d written several (hopefully) humorous articles for newspapers but hadn’t taken on anything heavy until I started working in child protection. I got a lot of reports over my desk that I wanted to share with people, things you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t know they were fact. I decided to spread the word by writing a thriller. I went to the airport, bought half a dozen best sellers, and sat down to write my own. I wrote three child protection based novels before getting into the Dr. Siri mysteries.
Sadly, the local books didn’t travel out of Thailand so people still don’t know what’s happening. They weren’t the most cheerful of books.

JJ: You are very involved with protecting the children of the world. Are things getting worse and what can the person reading this interview do to help?

CC: I’m not nearly as involved as I should be. My short rest from child protection has become protracted. I don’t think the plight of the world’s children is that much better than it was ten years ago. It’s just that more people are aware of what’s happening. I’m afraid the internet is legitimizing various perversions that men once kept hidden and unfulfilled, and children are increasingly the victims. The uncontrolled power of the internet frightens the life out of me.

Although it isn’t the only reason for abuse, poverty is often the root. I see people are more likely to donate money to dog rehabilitation or aids research than to keeping kids in school or helping their families keep food on the table. My philosophy is one I got from Dr. Siri: forget the planet, save the garden. If we all took responsibility for one kid or one family who are worse off than ourselves through no fault of their own, eventually things would even up. That sounds like something a Miss Universe candidate might say, but I believe it.

JJ: What do you do when not locked in with your computer, pounding out the next book?

CC: Actually I pound out my books with a pen into notebooks. The computer doesn’t become involved till the edit stage. I live near a national park so I go for bike rides quite often, draw cartoons, sit on the balcony with a bottle of wine and a nice wife, teach a few hours a week at the university, and do a lot of traveling.

JJ: How did you end up doing the David Handler covers for Busted Flush?

CC: The folks at Murder by the Book were the first to contact me and offer support when ‘The Coroner’s Lunch’ came out. I went to visit them on my last little tour. They became fans of the website, liked my illustrations there, and David asked whether I could do a few covers for Busted Flush. I love doing stuff like that so I rarely refuse illustration work, however busy I am. It’s a great release from the pressures of being a novelist.

Jennifer Jordan