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Arts & Culture

Interview with the author of 'The Woman in the Library'

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Four strangers are sitting in the reading room of the Boston Public Library quietly working when a woman's scream pierces the silence. Later, a body is found, and the four characters quickly become friends as they work to piece together what happened. That's the premise of Sulari Gentill's new mystery, titled "The Woman In The Library." When I spoke with her this past week, she said the idea of strangers bonding during scary events came from her own life experience.

SULARI GENTILL: At the time I was writing this, of course, I was sitting in Australia in the middle of the bushfires. And I live in a town which was absolutely smashed by the bushfires. So we were evacuated, and I was at the time sitting in what I call the refugee house, which was a little house that was lent to the people who had been displaced. And there was three families living there. And I think I was probably very cognizant of the idea that there was a sort of - a kind of a special bond that was built up by that shared distress. And so it seemed to me that putting people in the same room and letting them experience something as heartrending as a disembodied scream might start a friendship which otherwise would not have happened.

NADWORNY: "The Woman In The Library" is set in Boston, Mass., and it takes place as the weather is turning cold, which means that the four characters, there's a lot of scenes where they're cooking warm dinners together, ordering takeout, making lots of hot coffee. Like, it's kind of cozy. And one of the things I love about the book is even though it's about murder, the world you've written is very inviting. Can you talk about that contrast?

GENTILL: Yeah. Look; I think contrast is what really makes something suspenseful. So there was two storylines going on then. One was the evolution of a friendship. And young people, I remember - well, I remember from when I was in my early 20s, you'd form these intense friendships. And I wanted to explore that because I always look back at that time with a certain amount of nostalgia and warmth. But I also wanted to, you know, have this growing menace in the background.

NADWORNY: So from what I've read, you became an author after studying astrophysics at university. And you went to law school. You live on a truffle farm in the Australian Snowy Mountains. How did this come to be? How did you find writing?

GENTILL: After a long time. I was a bit obtuse as to what I was supposed to be doing, I think. I went to university to study astrophysics but realized very quickly that the magic I saw whenever I looked up into the stars and that thrill that I felt every time I looked at the night sky was more to do with the stories that had been woven into the stars by my father when I was a child. And so in disappointment, I switched my degree, and I found law. And I quite enjoyed being a lawyer. But I found myself becoming a serial hobbyist. I was one of those people who'd pick up a hobby, do it really intensely for about six months, and then move on to the next hobby. So, you know, I've quilted. I've built gardens like I was working at Gardens of Babylon. I've (inaudible). I can even pregnancy test your cows. And I started writing in exactly the same way. I was - I'd finished the welding course. I was looking for something to do, and I thought, oh, I'll write a novel. And I just sat down, and I started writing. And I realized very quickly that this is what I should have been doing all along. And nowadays I write full-time.

NADWORNY: In addition to mystery, you've written fantasy adventure books. Both of those genres in particular feel very escapist. I'm wondering if creating an escape for readers during such a dark time, I mean, with the fires and the pandemic, was that a motivation for you at all when you're writing?

GENTILL: It is. I mean, and more selfishly, it's an escape for me. You know, as much as reading a book is an escape, writing a book is in some ways the ultimate escape. So I started writing "The Woman In The Library" when I was evacuated, when everything was on fire and my husband and my son were out fighting the fire with the RFS. And everything that was going on was overwhelming. But I could write. I could disappear into this world and start creating these characters and get worried about them. And it allowed me to stop worrying about my husband and my son and myself and our house and our town for just a little while I worked. I think humanity creates lives that we need to escape from every now and then. It's not an abdication. It's just an escape. It's just giving our souls a little bit of rest so that we can face the next day.

NADWORNY: Sulari Gentill is the author of the new book "The Woman In The Library." Sulari, thanks so much for joining us.

GENTILL: Oh, thank you so much, Elissa. It's been an absolute pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.