Colin Cotterill, Laos: A Laos-y Break
It’s 1975. The new People’s Democratic Republic of Laos is still finding its way and revolution hangover lingers in the air like humidity. Reluctant Party man Dr. Siri Paiboun soon finds himself inundated with dead bodies. As Paiboun investigates, he’s got help from the “other side”—of the material world, that is. Described by the New York Times Book Review as a “perfect balance between the modern mysteries of forensic science and the ancient secrets of the spirit world,” Colin Cotterill’s Siri Paboun Mysteries open a window on a country few Westerners know well.
A longtime educator with a passion for travel and a deep humanitarian streak, London-born Cotterill has taught physical education in Israel, worked with educationally disadvantaged adults on Cape Cod and lectured at university in Japan. He’s also a dedicated child-protection advocate who is active in efforts to combat child exploitation in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Cotterill first became interested in Laos as a young man teaching English in Australia, where he met refugees who had fled the Communist takeover. He later spent four years living in Laos, where a lengthy hospitalization planted the seeds for several of the vivid characters who populate his Siri Paboun Mysteries.
For all his success as a novelist and his gifts as a teacher, cartooning is Cotterill’s first love. He lives with his wife Jessi in Thailand.
Scene of the Crime: Laos
It’s something of an irony that a country where few read for pleasure and even fewer own books should spawn an internationally acclaimed series of novels. But that’s Laos for you—beautiful, haunting, complicated, troubled. Of his charming, paradoxical muse, Cotterill has said, “My time in Laos provided my life’s highest highs and lowest lows. I hope my love affair with the country comes through in these books.”
Dr. Siri Paiboun
Perhaps the first thing to know about Dr. Siri is that he sees dead people—thanks to a 1,000-year-old shaman whose spirit finds its earthly vessel in Siri’s 72-year-old body. This ability to commune with the recently departed comes in handy for a coroner whose lack of training (he’s a Paris-trained physician) and scarce supplies make intuition one of his most powerful investigative tools.
Young at heart but old enough to know better when it comes to the corrupting effects of political power—especially the newly realized—the spry, eccentric Dr. Siri embodies the frustration and cynicism of a generation of Lao people who were forced by the Communists to leave behind the lives they’d built. As the new regime does its bumbling best to keep him mired in bureaucratic red tape, the crafty sleuth doctor never sacrifices his independence in his quest for justice.
You’ve traveled and lived all over the world. Where did your wanderlust come from? And why do you think travel is important?
I think being born English has something to do with it. England seemed limited to me. I always wanted to know what everybody else was doing and something told me they were doing it better elsewhere.
I made one or two trips to Europe with my school and my blood was tainted for life. For 26 years, the longest I spent in any one place was eighteen months. I was forever looking for new experiences. Most of my school friends had settled into “the comfort of the known.” Few of them took chances. In my mind that was like only using ten percent of your personality. I reveled in the unexpected, the revelation of making new friends and learning new jobs, the honeymoon with a new place and a different culture.
Cartooning was your first artistic pursuit. Where do you get your ideas? Do you think it plays into your writing now at all?
I was born with two traits that have really helped me through life. I have a vast imagination, and I’m weird. I love the quirky side of life. I get a thrill out of the ridiculous and it means I’m always looking for it. For a while I was drawing weekly cartoons for a publication and I was afraid I might run out of ideas. But when your imagination lets you down there’s always “real life.” And making it up is never as funny as the actual foolishness of man.
This cartoonist eye undoubtedly helped when I started to write. You have to see things, not as they are, but as you can lampoon them. You need to give your readers lots of, “Yeah, that’s how it is,” moments. You “see” on their behalf. Our planet is inhabited by a large number of nondescript people. But a book can’t be peopled with boring. So a writer needs to caricature, to bring out traits and wiles that you might not notice if you bump into the characters in the Seven Eleven.
When you’re writing a novel, where do you begin? How long do you spend writing?
The best way to answer that question is to lead you through the process. I’ve recently been signed up to begin a new series. I’ve decided to set it right here in the Gulf [of Thailand].
Lesson One: Don’t make your life any more complicated than it needs to be. I’m collecting written data and statistics about our region. This is taking me longer than usual because there’s nothing in English and I read Thai like a hyperactive four-year-old. But eventually I’ll collate all this data and have a sizeable collection of research, most of which I’ll never use. Time taken: about five months. Then I’ll put together some characters and play with them. I write them dialogues and see how they perform at their screen tests. The ones I like, I keep.
Lesson Two: You have to get along with your characters. Time taken: two months. All this while I’ve been recalling plot ideas. I don’t say “making them up” because every plot idea we have has been “done” and lurks at the back of our minds.
Lesson Three: Plots will materialize when they’re good and ready. When they do, I go away for three weeks and write. I have no idea where the story is going or how it will end. I want to be as amazed by turns of events as my readers.
I come home, rest for a fortnight, then begin the process of typing everything up onto the computer. This is my first edit and it takes about a month. In its raw form I send the manuscript off to my team of editorial readers. When the feedback is in, I start my second draft, followed by one month of not looking at the book. One more read and edit, and I send it off to the publisher.
Lesson Four: Writing is an art. Let’s not make it a science, eh?
What are some of the life lessons you’ve learned from your time in Southeast Asia?
Well, not specifically Southeast Asia, but my work here has made me a calmer person. We set up a child protection agency in Phuket, and every day I was dealing with kids with serious problems. In Bangkok, I helped set up programs for children forced into prostitution. When you see all this, you’re a lot less likely to turn into the Incredible Hulk when you’re short-changed five cents at the supermarket. I think it helps you see what’s important, what’s worth investing your anger into. In fact, you re-evaluate what the point of anger is. I go back to the west and I’m embarrassed. I’m shocked by displays of aggression. I’m not perfect yet, but I’m getting there.
You seem to have a real joie de vivre. What makes you happy these days?
I’m coming up on sixty, and what makes me happy is obviously not the same as what gave me the jollies in my twenties or forties. Last year my wife, Jessi, and I moved to the Gulf of Thailand and bought a little bit of land on the coast. We have a small house and four dogs. I get up at six, feed the menagerie and we all walk along the beach. And, without fail, every morning I look out at the ocean and the sunrise and I say, “Oh, man. This is great.” It’s a simple, “it-was-there-all-the-time-and-I-didn’t-notice-it” great. I don’t need to go in search of my joie now because it’s all around me.
Siri Paiboun Mysteries
- The Coroner’s Lunch (2004)
- Thirty-Three Teeth (2005)
- Disco for the Departed (2006)
- Anarchy and Old Dogs (2007)
- Curse of the Pogo Stick (2008)
- The Merry Misogynist (2009)
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