'Crossing the Lines,' A Conversation with Sulari Gentill

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Sulari Gentill, a former attorney, is the author of mysteries, historical crime novels and fiction based on myths and epics of the ancient world. She has been shortlisted for various awards and has won many.

Crossing the Lines involves the protagonist, Madeleine, a successful writer who creates a character, Edward, himself a successful author. As Madeleine becomes engaged in writing a mystery story involving Edward, she grows increasingly involved with her character, to the point where he begins engaging her back. The line between fiction and fact becomes blurred, and Crossing the Lines depicts Madeleine falling down a deep rabbit hole.

In “Crossing the Lines,” Madeleine, a successful author of a mystery series, writes a standalone novel about a mystery writer named Edward. And here you are, the author of a popular mystery series called the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, and you’ve written a standalone novel about a mystery writer. Is this a matter of Art imitating Life imitating Art?

I have for some time been intrigued by the reciprocal relationship between author and protagonist. Being the writer of a long running series, I’ve had the opportunity over several books, to really look at that relationship through my own experience. I’ve discovered that while Rowland Sinclair is a reflection my values and ideas, I’ve also been influenced by his, and by the way he sees his world. I suppose that’s not surprising. Over eight books I’ve spent a significant part of the last seven years thinking about him.

While Madeleine’s circumstances sound familiar to mine, Madeleine is not me, and Crossing the Lines is a novel, not a memoir.

In writing this book, I wanted to concentrate on Madeleine’s inner world and so I gave her an outer world I knew—one that’s very similar to my own. A familiar baseline from which I could extrapolate. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, but for this book which is all about crossing those lines between reality and imagination, it was right. Perhaps it is Art imitating Life, perhaps its Art and Life merging somehow, or perhaps we’re all part of somebody else’s story.

The unreliable narrator is a well-established literary tradition. Were there any particular antecedents in either mystery fiction or literary fiction that influenced you in the writing of “Crossing the Lines.”

Rather than being influenced by characters or books in writing Crossing the Lines, I think was influenced by writers themselves—those late-night get-togethers when writers gather to talk as colleagues.

So many of us seem to have developed real relationships with the people in our heads, we talk to our characters, and feel the presence of the people we conjure in our books in our day to day lives. I suppose being a writer often involves working on the edge of the line between imagination and delusion. Perhaps to make our characters real to readers, we allow them to become real to ourselves, to some extent at least. I know writers who wouldn’t stop writing at some point in the manuscript lest something happened to them and their protagonist was stranded forever in peril and despair. I know writers who fell out of love because their partner didn’t measure up to the hero they’d made up. I also know writers who have felt enormous guilt for what they put their protagonist through.

It was all these peculiarly writerly things that influenced me in creating Madeleine and Edward whose unreliability as narrators is the essence of the story. Each one allows feelings about the other to influence the narrative. Writers often talk about characters behaving unexpectedly, taking the plot in a direction that they hadn’t anticipated. This is what happens in Crossing the Lines.

Among other things “Crossing the Lines” deals with the creative process and the toll it may take on an author. Will you talk about that?

Writing is, in my experience, a consuming profession. It occupies not only the writer’s mind but her heart. It’s very easy for a writer to disappear into his/her own head. After all, there are entire worlds in there and our characters keep us company. For many writers, our own imaginations are seductive places calling us back as we go about our day to day lives. The creative process begins to take a toll when the real world is sacrificed or abandoned entirely for the excitement and passion of the world we imagine. There is of course a certain amount of neglect real life will withstand, even celebrate, in the name of creativity—it’s more a matter of where you draw the line.

I do tend to allow myself to really believe in the people I write. This indulgence makes the act of writing less lonely in a way. But while I play close to the line, I don’t think I’ve ever crossed it into delusion.

But then my real circumstances are quite stable and happy. If my real life was difficult, or tragic or uncertain, I do wonder whether I would be tempted to retreat into the imagination on which I’ve always relied.

Madeleine’s fictional storyline changes direction as she writes her novel. Does this mirror some of your own creative processes?

Storylines often change direction when I’m writing. Unexpected people walk into the plot and steer the story on a new path. Or, I discover something about a character which opens new possibilities, or entices me in a different direction. I’ve had books that have ended up taking place in countries I’d not anticipated, both metaphorically and geographically. For me, that’s an essential and exciting part of the process.

While writing her novel, Madeleine isn’t certain of the murderer’s identity. Does this occur when you write your own novels?

I rarely work out who the murderer is until I’m at about two thirds of the way through a mystery novel. I begin writing without even knowing who the victim will be. All I truly know is that there will be at least one of each. I’m not entirely sure why I write this way—it’s just always seemed natural to tell the story to myself as I am telling it to the reader. The advantage is that I don’t begin writing a character with any self-consciousness as to their part in the plot—the murderer emerges from the narrative and the same things that led me to believe he/she was the culprit are there for the reader as well. I suppose the disadvantage is that it’s a risky way to write. There’s a chance that I’ll write myself into corner which will require massive rewriting to fix. For me that hasn’t happened as yet. And so, I continue plunging into novels with no real idea as to what will happen next.

Tell us something about your writing process that might surprise your readers.

I suppose this won’t be a complete surprise to readers of “Crossing the Lines” as I’ve written much my own writing process into the way Madeleine writes. Like her, I write best when I’m distracted. So, I watch television while I work—generally programs that I can follow with divided attention; with familiar formats like Midsommer Murders, Inspector Morse, or Lewis. I sit in bed with the television on, typing stories into my laptop. There is a cognitive psychology explanation as to why this works which involves indirectly accessing the prefrontal cortex. Or perhaps it’s just that my muse is addicted to British television. All I can say for certain is that that writing in this way makes the words come freely and in the correct order.

What’s coming next from Sulari Gentill?

In the US, my next release will be Paving the New Road, the fourth Rowland Sinclair Mystery, set in Germany in 1933. In Australia, it will be the eighth in the series, and titled A Dangerous Language. I’m currently working on the ninth book and though the manuscript is half finished, it still has no title and I don’t yet know the murderer’s identity. Between period mysteries I usually write in other genres, so I guess the end of this year will see me embarking on a project that isn’t a period mystery—but right now, that’s all I know.

Congratulations on writing “Crossing the Lines,” a deeply-imagined and inventive novel about art, truth, and the blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy.

Mark Rubinstein’s latest book is “Beyond Bedlam’s Door: True Tales from the Couch and Courtroom.”