Award-winning author Eliot Pattison (Inspector Shan Series, Bone Rattler Series) recently launched his third series of books with Ashes of the Earth. An international lawyer by training, early in his career Pattison began writing on legal and business topics, producing several books and dozens of articles published on three continents. In the late 1990s he decided to combine his deep concerns for the people of Tibet with his interest in venturing into fiction by writing The Skull Mantra, which launched the Inspector Sham series .. and for which he won an Edgar Award for Best First Mystery.
You were trained as a lawyer. Do you think that affected your writing or your writing skills?
To be a good lawyer you have to be a good communicator—so in terms of acquiring fundamental communication skills I would say that background proved a good foundation, though only a foundation. Communicating as a lawyer generally means digging into ambiguity and eliminating it. A good novelist deliberately creates and uses ambiguity.
Where do your ideas come from?
I have no doubt that growing up in a rural environment—then later becoming an avid world traveler—contributed to my ideas for plots and characters, as did my interest in Asian religions and American history. Those experiences certainly had a role in focusing issues and themes that eventually became backstories to my books. After spending a lot of time in Asia, for example, I developed strong views about the plight of the Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese. Those views gave rise to six novels set in Tibet. My deep interest in colonial history certainly played a role in shaping my Bone Rattler series. Ashes of the Earth, my latest novel, is set in post-apocalyptic America; I’d have to say the ideas driving that book draw broadly from my interests in the collisions of culture and politics, history, and the concept of “natural justice” lying outside laws.
How did you first go about getting published?
I suspect it’s a fairly familiar story. I struggled for a long time to put the manuscript of my first novel directly in front of publishers. After collecting a huge pile of rejection notices, I searched for an agent who would understand what I was trying to do and be excited about representing me. That process took many months, but I finally found one who was a great fit for me. That first novel—The Skull Mantra—went on to win an Edgar.
Why do you like writing series? How does someone who wants to write a series get started?
I have strong commitments to my characters and themes. They are so complex that a single novel could never fully explore them. A series allows me to bring out the many perspectives and dimensions of my backstories and also allows me to breathe more life into my characters. For those interested in building a series, I’d say those are the most important elements: a complex, believable set of characters and a fertile backstory.
How do you keep your books fresh, while maintaining the conceits of the series?
I always seek to focus on a specific, unique element of my backstory so both my readers and myself are exploring, learning new aspects and perspectives. In my Inspector Shan series, for example, the books each have a very specific cultural or political theme within the Tibet versus China context. One is focused on theft of art treasures, for example, another is focused on Tibetan medicine, and one more spotlights Chinese efforts to suppress the phenomenon of reincarnation among lamas.
What is your favorite part about being a writer? The greatest challenge?
What drives me more than anything is the bond between reader and writer. I feel a responsibility to my readers—I want to excite them, I want to transport them on a journey to a different place, a journey in which they learn something new about themselves or their world. I can’t do my job unless I am also excited, also committed to that journey—and that means I myself must keep exploring new places, keep sowing new seeds to germinate in my books. That is at once my favorite part of writing and the greatest challenge.
How does your love of travel help your writing?
Doubtlessly my travels around the globe had enriched my perspectives about people, places, and also about history. I’m not sure if I could have conveyed the experience of a Tibetan Buddhist temple if I had not spent time in such temples myself. For my Bone Rattler series, I was able to add a lot more color in writing about mid-18th century Scots and Native Americans because of my journeys in Scotland and to many sites of the French and Indian War.
Likewise my experience with the interplay between cultures led me to include intercultural conflict as an important element in all of my books. Conflict between cultures is woven into all my novels.
Advice for mystery writers?
Resist the push to turn every mystery into some formulaic CSI script. Find what it is that kindles a fire within you and work with that, coax that flame so that it energizes your muse, and direct that energy into your backstory and characters. Paint your characters with subtle colors—keep then rich and complex enough so that they themselves have an edgy, mysterious aspect to them.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I had better grasped the importance of character depth. Early on I was more interested in developing a fascinating plot—but the best plot in the world remains dull and one dimensional without rich characters to propel it. And of course most writers stating out don’t have sufficient knowledge of the business of publishing; there is a lot of change underway in the industry and writers need to stay savvy about it.