NZ Booklovers recently had the pleasure of catching up with Melbourne based crime novelist Anna Jaquiery about her debut novel The Lying-Down Room. Anna is of French-Malaysian descent, grew up in Europe and Asia, and has worked as a journalist in many countries. This novel is the first in a series to feature Paris detective Commandant Serge Morel.
The Lying-Down Room is your first novel – can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write crime fiction, and particularly what gave you the idea for the storyline of this novel?
I’ve always enjoyed reading crime fiction and it was something I wanted to try my hand at. But it isn’t necessarily the only kind of fiction I want to write. It’s what I am doing at the moment. I’ll just have to see how it goes! I can’t think beyond the next book. At the moment I am really enjoying writing about Commandant Serge Morel. I want to spend more time with him.
One thing I love about crime fiction is that often the crime is an excuse to tackle social and political themes. This is something that draws me to the genre and makes it really interesting to me. The Lying-Down Room grew out of my desire to explore a number of themes. I wanted to set my story in Paris, because it’s a city I know well and feel a connection to. I wanted to give a sense of the political climate there under President Nicolas Sarkozy. I wanted to write about the fall of the Soviet Union, a period during which foreign religious sects arrived in the country en masse to convert unsuspecting Russians, many of whom had never seen anything like Hare Krishnas, born-again Christians and Mormons before. Russia is a fascinating country on many levels. The story developed from these different strands.
Commandant Serge Morel seems to have some of the archetypal characteristics of the noir crime fiction detective – he is a bit troubled, a bit lonely, and battling some of his own personal demons and pressures, while at the same time being intelligent, enigmatic and compassionate. What or who was your model or inspiration for Morel?
My reading must have influenced me, to a degree. Morel, I’m sure, has a few things in common with other fictional detectives. But there was no single source of inspiration for his character. I did want to write about someone who was Eurasian and who had travelled. I wanted him to have that broadened perspective that comes from having been exposed to different cultures. I thought about the traits he would have as a senior detective. I felt he should be intelligent, empathetic, meticulous. I wanted him to be alive to his emotions and at the same time private. He is a pragmatic man, and a romantic too. His character developed gradually.
Apart from Morel, The Lying-Down Room is filled with many different characters – how important is the creation of those other characters to you and to the narrative, and how will they evolve in the next books of the “Commandant Morel” series?
Creating characters is the best part about writing a novel. It is incredibly rewarding to feel you have successfully brought a character to life. In The Lying-Down Room I found myself increasingly drawn to the lives of the ‘villains’ in the story. I didn’t expect this at first. It’s important to believe in your characters, to invest yourself in them, if you want your readers to do the same. I think the partnership between Serge Morel and Lila Markov is an important one. It isn’t as central to the second book that I’ve just finished, as it was in The Lying-Down Room, because in the second book Morel is in Cambodia on his own, working a case. But Lila will play an essential role in the third book, which I have started working on.
As the daughter of a diplomat you have travelled the world with your parents, how important is it for you to invoke a “sense of place” within your writing?
A sense of place is everything. When I begin a story, I tend to think of the setting first. I picture it in my mind. The place, the weather, the atmosphere… so many places have made an impression on me. Writing about them is a way of preserving these impressions. When I was thinking about writing The Lying-Down Room, I felt Paris would be the perfect setting. I lived there for five years or so, when I was a student. This was a long time ago. So it was both familiar and somewhat distant. I’m half-French and my culture is French, but I only lived in France when I was at university. In many ways I am something of an outsider. So it was a really interesting experience, writing about French culture and society as I knew it. My viewpoint was both personal and detached.
Is there a particular message in The Lying-Down Room that you are trying to convey?
A few people who’ve read the book have spoken about the underlying compassion. It’s true this is an important strand for me. Life is messy and unpredictable. People are flawed and their motives can be complicated and unclear, even to themselves. I don’t believe that people are simply good or evil. It’s never as simple as that. I think this is an important message in the book.
Are you an avid crime reader yourself? Who are some of the writers that you read, and that have influenced the way you write?
I read a lot of crime fiction and non-crime fiction. My favourite authors are a mixed bag of crime and so-called literary novelists. In the crime genre, I like James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman and Denise Mina. I loved Stieg Larsson’s trilogy. It was gripping and engaging on so many levels. I enjoy many of the Scandinavian writers including Liza Marklund and Asa Larsson. In the non-crime genre, I love all of Vikram Seth’s books – A Suitable Boy is probably my desert island pick! I thought Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was wonderful, as was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.
What are some of the challenges to your writing practice? Do you have particular rituals or ways that you write to finish your novels?
Family life with young children means you have to give up on the idea of a perfect working routine! My writing habits aren’t particularly orderly. I write whenever I can. Generally speaking, I prefer the mornings, once I have dropped my two sons off at school. That’s when I’m at my best. I also tend to write at night, once everyone is asleep.
What is next for Commandant Morel, and when can we expect to see the next book of the series?
I am in the process of revising the draft of my second Morel book, which is set in Cambodia this time. In this one, Morel, who is half-Khmer, is holidaying in Cambodia when a Frenchman is killed. Morel is asked to get involved in the investigation. The book is due out in early 2015. Meanwhile, I have also started working on a third book, which I’m pretty excited about. Starting something new is always a thrill. At this stage, everything seems possible.