Cotterill, Colin 1952–

views updated

COTTERILL, Colin 1952–

PERSONAL: Born October 2, 1952, in London, England. Education: Berkshire College, teacher training diploma, 1975; Sydney University, graduate diploma, 1980; Reading University, M.A., 1984; Sydney Institute of Technology, certificate, 1999. Hobbies and other interests: Bicycling, listening to jazz.

ADDRESSES: Home—910 103 Condo 4, Soi Wat Pratan Porn, Suthep, Chian Mai 50200, Thailand. Agent—Richard Curtis, 171 East 74th St., 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10021. E-mail[email protected]olincotterill.com.

CAREER: Teacher and curriculum developer in Israel, Australia, Japan, and Thailand, 1975–98; teacher trainer and curriculum developer for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Laos, 1990–94; Prince of Songkla University, Phuket, Thailand, founder, project director, and social worker for Childwatch Phuket, 1995–97; teacher trainer in refugee camps, 1997–2000; ECPAT International, Bangkok, Thailand, training coordinator, 2000–02; Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, teacher, 2002–.

WRITINGS:

Evil in the Land Without: From England to Burma, a Monster Seeks Revenge (novel), Asia Books (Bangkok, Thailand), 2003.

The Coroner's Lunch ("Siri Paiboun Mystery" series), Soho Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Thirty-three Teeth ("Siri Paiboun Mystery" series), Soho Press (New York, NY), 2005.

Other novels by Cotterill have been published in Thailand.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Additional novels in the "Siri Paiboun Mystery" series.

SIDELIGHTS: Colin Cotterill was born in London and trained as a teacher, a skill that benefited students on several continents. He produced a television series to teach language, then worked in Laos with UNESCO. Cotterill also became involved in protecting those children in Thailand who were being abused and exploited, and he worked for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), an international organization that combats child prostitution and pornography, creating a program for caregivers. He continues to teach, more recently graduate students, and is spending more time writing.

During an interview with Dean James and McKenna Jordan of Murder by the Book online, Cotterill talked about his first books, which were published in Thailand "where the English-language readership is about eleven." Up until the time he worked for UNESCO, Cotterill wrote humor and created cartoons, but "seeing and learning about the horrors children face got me angry to start writing for effect. I wanted people to know what I knew, and I figured the best way to do that was through fiction. I wrote two novels with a theme of child protection, and I think it was quite a therapeutic activity. I think these were angry books. I was a bit calmer when I wrote a third and decided to make it a comedy (but still with a child trafficking theme).

With The Coroner's Lunch, Cotterill began the novel series featuring Siri Paiboun, a French-educated doctor who is appointed chief medical examiner in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, after the only doctor qualified to perform autopsies crosses the river into Thailand. The story is set following the Communist takeover of 1975, and Cotterill incorporates the history and culture of the obscure country—which he noted are almost unknown outside of Laos—in his stories. The Coroner's Lunch reflects the upheaval and confusion in Thailand, and in the case of Siri, who is not trained as a coroner, the novel illustrates the lack of resources he has available to efficiently perform his job, including textbooks, supplies, and staff. Cotterill related that his protagonist's character is "an amalgam of several friends in Laos. He's also a symbol of the resilience and wisdom of many of the older educated Lao People" and "represents a generation I consider to be sadly under-represented in fiction. Some of the most colorful characters I know have waved farewell to seventy and have much more to offer than a lot of these young whippersnappers that hog the limelight in novels these days."

In the series debut, an official's wife is poisoned and bodies of tortured Vietnamese soldiers are found floating in a lake, threatening to spark an "incident" between Laos and Vietnam. Siri, who is expected to sort out the deaths, turns to dreams, shamans, and spirits, as well as to medical deduction, to solve the crimes. Marilyn Stasio noted in the New York Times Book Review that this mystery would "be fascinating" if all it did was provide insight into this period of the country's history. "But the multiple cases spread out on Siri's examining table … are not cozy entertainments, but substantial crimes that take us into the thick of political intrigue," she added. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Coroner's Lunch "an embarrassment of riches: Holmesian sleuthing, political satire, and droll comic study of a prickly late bloomer."

Cotterill told CA: "I think I've always written or drawn cartoons. As an only child I had a lot of imagination to get out of my system. I always associated reading with torture. The school would force you to read a book if you were naughty. You'd just read enough to put together a synopsis and an opinion, and that opinion was always positive, or else. What finally got me hooked on reading were Marvel comics. I could get second-hand copies at the market, cheap. The earliest hero in my life was Spider Man and I can't pretend he didn't shape my personality in a number of ways.

"I loved being knocked out of my socks by my comic stories, and I loved that feeling of not knowing what was going to happen on the next page. And, despite constant criticism from 'serious writer' friends, that's how I tend to write. I don't want everything sorted out before I start to write a book. I have a few vague ideas of location, new characters, and where plots may begin, but I write as if I'm a reader. I turn the page with as much apprehension as a comic reader would. I honestly don't know the answer until I write it. So when I get to the end, I'm as drained and as satisfied as, I hope, readers will be.

"The first writing I got paid for was a funny article in a national newspaper with an illustration. I wrote the article because I wanted people to see my cartoon. I wrote several more for the same reason. I imagined the life of a cartoonist would be more fun than that of a writer. I finally got a national cartoon and gave up that awful writing stuff. No, that's not true; I continued to write for myself but swore never to open myself up to humiliation again.

"But then something happened. I started to work in child protection and a lot of reports came over my desk that were unbelievable, but true. I wanted other people to learn about the ugly things that were going on in the world. The only media I could imagine getting to a sufficiently large audience was the novel. That's when I learned just what hard work writing a novel was. I had to do it part time, evenings, weekends. I had to put down ideas as they came to me on whatever came to hand. It took me almost two years to write, then I had to face the editor. Writing is bloody hard work and it takes a little bit of your soul. I wrote two more novels based on child protection in my free time, and it helped as therapy but didn't do a lot for my bank balance.

"I enjoy every book I write for different reasons, but the book I like the most is one written in Thai. My friend translated it from handwritten notes. My mother and stepmother came to Thailand for a month following the death of my mom's second husband. It was such a peculiar time to spend a month on Phuket (where I lived at the time) with two, slightly nutty old English ladies who didn't speak a word of Thai in a little Muslim fishing village. When they left, I put together a scrapbook of cartoons, fake postcards, and fake diary inserts and sent it to them as a souvenir. I sent one photocopy to my Thai friend. She translated it, sent it to a Thai publisher, and it was sold out three months after publication. Miracle.

"I spent a lot of years doing a very stressful job. I wanted to vent my frustration by reading about something that didn't add to my stress. I wanted to see movies that weren't crammed with guts and violence. I was seeking that 'feel good' buzz that made me feel a little better about the world. The books I wrote during that period, although they had happy endings, didn't come with a 'feel good' buzz. They were there to educate and get more people angry about something everyone should be angry about.

"When I left that work, I wanted to contribute some 'feel good' to the world of literature. With my 'Lao' books, I want people to make friends with the characters, learn new things about a place few people have been, and enjoy the stories. Dr. Siri has become a close friend to me and to those very kind readers who have taken the trouble to write to me. I believe the stories make people happy; that's my aim. Again, many thanks to all the reviewers and readers who have helped make the 'Dr. Siri' series so popular.

"The idea for the project I'm working on, Books for Laos, came to me when I was in Luang Prabang, doing research for Thirty-three Teeth. A little girl came up to me and asked me for money for sweets. I told her sweets were bad for her, so she asked for money for a book. I was sure she'd spend the book money on sweets so (with her mother's permission) I went with her to the market. No books; on to bookshops—there were no bookshops. Then on to the printer's which had a few dusty old copies of soft-cover school texts. I bought her some sweets and sent her home. Thence began the research.

"There is a dire shortage of books at all levels in Laos. Most kids get to graduation age having never owned a book. Many schools have so few textbooks that the students have to share. A lot of new libraries around the country have an embarrassingly small number of books that aren't particularly relevant or readable (foreign language donations). So, I put together a three stage plan (findable on the contacts page of my Web site www.colincotterill.com.) In brief, stage one involves getting donations of multiple copies of children's picture books from publishers or bookshops, shipping them to Laos, translating them, and attaching stickers for national distribution. Stage two is the printing of locally written and illustrated books. Stage three is donations of Thai-language text books (the Lao read Thai well) for college and university libraries. This is a stop gap until the Lao Ministry of Education is able to produce large numbers of Lao language texts (a feat which, despite available money from large-donor agencies, they have been unable to accomplish). Anyone who's read my books will understand that Laos is a hard country to help. The obstacles are many and a lot of energy has to be expended on bypassing red tape. But I'm game if you are."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 1, 2004, Frank Sennett, review of The Coroner's Lunch, p. 313.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2004, review of The Coroner's Lunch, p. 779.

Library Journal, December 1, 2004, Rex E. Klett, review of The Coroner's Lunch, p. 94.

New York Times Book Review, December 26, 2004, Marilyn Stasio, review of The Coroner's Lunch, p. 22.

ONLINE

Colin Cotterill Home Page, http://www.colincotterill.com (March 9, 2005).

Murder by the Book Web site, http://www.murderbooks.com/ (March 9, 2005), Dean James and McKenna Jordan, interview with Cotterill.