fb-pixel Skip to main content

How author Sulari Gentill wrote her Boston Public Library mystery from a continent away

‘The Woman in the Library’ is about a woman in Boston writing about a woman in Boston. And then, there’s a murder.

Sulari Gentill's "The Woman in the Library," a new mystery set in the Boston Public Library.Handout

Author Sulari Gentill wrote her latest page-turner about a murder in the Boston Public Library — and the group of new friends who try to solve it while roaming around Boston and Cambridge. And she did it all from another continent.

Gentill lives with her family in the Snowy Mountains of Australia, where she has a truffle farm. Her idea for the East Coast-based novel, “The Woman in the Library,” out this week, came about by chance, through emails she was exchanging with a friend doing research in Boston. Gentill began imagining a metaficton murder mystery, playing out through emails from Boston to Australia, just like the ones she was sharing with her friend.

Advertisement



In the book, Hannah, who lives in Australia, is writing a book about an Australian writer named Winifred (Freddie), who is living in Boston when she overhears the scream from a murder in the library. Hannah, meanwhile, is exchanging emails with a Boston writer named Leo who is actively commenting on the manuscript. In that way, “The Woman in the Library” is an unpacking of the wins and struggles of novel writing as much as that of a mystery.

Gentill, who based her research on an on-the-ground proxy, copious Google Maps searches, and photos, plans to come to Boston in the fall to see if the real city matches the one in her imagination. We sat down for a transcontinental Zoom chat ahead of the book’s launch.

Australian mystery writer Sulari GentillEdmund Blenkins

Q. How did you choose Boston for the setting, and the library for the jumping-off point?

A. I was corresponding with a friend of mine who’s based in Boston for another novel I was setting in the US. Larry’s a very earnest researcher, so not only would he give me answers to the questions I’d asked, he’d send me menus and maps and take photographs of sidewalks.

Advertisement



Q. That explains the level of detail in the letters [from Leo] in the book.

A. Right. And then one day there was a murder! It was a couple of blocks from where Larry was staying. He said he thought it would be useful for me to know what coroner’s vans and crime scene tape looks like in America. He took footage — after the body had been removed — and sent it to me.

Q. Oh my.

A. I opened up the video file here in Australia. My husband was standing behind me, and he said, ‘I hope Larry’s not killing people to send you research.’ And he wasn’t, but it was a very good idea for a story.

Q. Well, I’m glad to hear that he’s not actually a murderer.

A. Look, I’m 99.9 percent sure.

Q. Fair enough. And the library setting?

A. Larry was researching at the Boston Public Library, and he’d been rabbiting on to me about how beautiful it was. So that’s why the book opened there.

Q. Were you doing a lot of online research in addition to correspondence?

A. The wonderful thing now is that you can look on Google [Maps] and see things in a way that I suppose writers of generations past couldn’t. But sometimes that can actually be inhibiting, because part of writing is talking about things that people don’t see. It’s talking about how people react to their environment and how they feel about it.

Advertisement



Inside the Boston Public Library's Reading Room.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

Q. What were some of the details of the BPL that captivated you?

A. That ceiling! I opened with that ceiling because that was just wow — when I saw it. I don’t know that we have ceilings like that in Australia. That beautiful, vaulted architecture.

Q. I enjoyed how meta the book was. How’d you come up with the concept?

A. I don’t plot. I just sit down to write, it’s just how the story unfolded. I was having this correspondence with Larry at the same time. I did send the manuscript to him to see what he thought. And he’d send me back a critique and then I’d write the critique into Leo’s letters. There was a circularity about it.

Q. Is it true you live on a truffle farm? What’s that like?

A. I live in the Snowy Mountains, which is probably the coolest part of Australia, in terms of temperature. We have snow, and we have a truffle farm. We’re not really farmers. Truffles are one of those things that doesn’t require farming and harvesting to grow, because you’re just planting trees and keeping the trees alive.

Q. Do you sell the truffles?

A. People seem to sniff you out and beg you to sell them truffles. We have periodically sold to French restaurants.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I’m working on my next novel, the one I was supposed to be writing when I got the idea for this one. I’ve got this bank of ideas and I think I’ll die before I actually get enough time to write everything. Everything’s sort of lined up and waiting.

Advertisement



Q. I liked the coziness of the book — friends coming together around food and solving a mystery.

A. I’ve always loved the notion of these urban tribes that build up — the kind of friendships that you make in your 20s, where you become close very fast — they’re really intense, almost like family. Especially when you’re overseas.

Q. Are you coming to Boston anytime soon?

A. I’m coming to Boston in the fall for a book tour. I’m excited to see if the city that’s in my head actually matches up with what’s there. It’s always scary writing into another culture and trying to do it justice. I didn’t want to turn Boston into a caricature — I think hopefully Larry has helped me do it justice.

Q. The text was very self-referential, so you were clearly aware of pointing out cultural differences and Australian vs. American turns of phrase.

A. It sort of got me off the hook a little bit. Because, this book is about an Australian author writing a novel about America. So, if I made a terrible mistake, it’s because the character Hannah made the mistake — not me!

Interview was edited and condensed.

Advertisement



Gina Tomaine can be reached at Gina.Tomaine@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @gtomaine.