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The Corpse Reader

Thanks to the good folks at Red Room, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Antonio Garrido, an award-winning thriller author from Spain, about his new book, THE CORPSE READER. Set in 13th century China, THE CORPSE READER employs actual history—and the real-life “father of forensic medicine”, Song Ci—as its protagonist. The novel has been garnering wonderful reviews and won the prestigious Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain. Published in English by Amazon Crossing, a publishing arm of the company devoted to publishing translations of award-winning foreign language novels, this is Antonio’s second book and the first to be published in English.

Antonio, what drew you to the story of Song Ci, which you have so successfully fictionalized with THE CORPSE READER?

After the success of my first novel THE SCRIBE, which has been translated into sixteen languages, I knew that I really needed a new, thrilling story to captivate readers. I think of novelists as story hunters, so I took my rifle and I started hunting, looking for a new and surprising theme.

While I was researching, reading tons of books and articles, I thought I was hunting a rabbit. I knew the book would feature some strange murder or weird character, but still, I really didn’t know what the theme would turn out to be. Fortunately, I discovered Song Ci, a real person, father of forensic science in 13th century China, and, just at that moment, I knew I had hunted not a rabbit, but an elephant. I was thrilled.

Imagine what I felt like at that moment: Old China, a talented young man with an incredible deductive intelligence, the sumptuous Imperial Court with its hidden rituals, some horrible and unexplained murders, innovative deductive systems, a fight between eunuchs and concubines, and forensic techniques comparable to a modern day C.S.I … an exciting mix for a wonderful novel!

Have you always been a student of Chinese history?

Not really, although I have always admired many aspects of China’s thousand-year culture: Its respect, care and love for the elderly, its advanced and ingenious inventions (they invented not only forensic science, but unsinkable boats, printing, paper, the compass, soccer, acupuncture, gunpowder, etc. ), its egalitarian principles (everyone, even the poorest of peasants, could reach the position of Prime Minister, if he studied enough). They even had a legal code that not only punished criminals, but gave awards to people that helped others. When I studied this culture in depth, I discovered a number of thrilling characters and amazing stories, many of which I have included in my novel.

How did you research the book? Did you visit China?

I spent a great deal of time studying the time and place. I found a copy of the five forensic treaties that Song Cí wrote and poured over them extensively. I travelled around the world for two years, visiting museums like the Metropolitan of New York, the British Museum in London, The Oriental Museum of Valladolid, and The Confucius Institute.  I met with their directors and curators, every aspect of the novel with them. I even attended a real autopsy for a better knowledge of current forensic techniques.

I’d planned to travel to China—in fact, I’d booked and paid for the trip and was planning to go with my wife. Unfortunately, my father-in-law became seriously ill, and we canceled our plans--family is the most important thing in the world. My father-in-law subsequently passed away, and this novel is dedicated to him as tribute.

Ultimately, I think that for a novelist, it is not as important to live the experiences you are bringing to readers as it is to imagine the experiences—and let readers feel they are living them.

Your biography states that you were an educator and are an industrial engineer--how long have you been writing professionally and did you always write as a hobby?

Perhaps the question should be "Why is a writer is working as an industrial engineer?"

I must tell you that I have read for as long as I am able to remember. When I was a child, I enjoyed reading Mark Twain. In the summer, I spent my holidays in a small and abandoned mining town, surrounded by mountains, and there, playing with other children, I imagined myself as Tom Sawyer, living exciting adventures. I enjoyed reading and imagining. Those were the best moments in my life, because every day meant a new imaginary adventure.

When I was ten I won a literary prize in a school competition—and this prize finally was my own downfall. Why? The first prize was an incredible toy car, bigger than me. When I saw this car, I told to my father: "Dad, I don’t want to become a novelist anymore. I want a car like this!" … and so I majored in industrial engineering.

As an adult, I designed cars and owned very nice models … but I always asked myself, "Why don’t you try it? Writing is your dream. Are you willing to die without trying first?" So When I turned thirty-seven, I finally said: “Enough! I am going to try it. I am going to study creative writing techniques, and I am going to try to give my readers every enjoyable moment that I experience when I read.”

The end of my dream is still down the road, but now I know that I have millions of readers that have enjoyed my novels, just as I dreamed.

I currently work as a writer full-time, aside from the hours I spend as a technical director for a masters degree program in automotive styling.

What did or do you teach?

I teach car styling, car modeling, car engineering and car sketching. In addition, I sometimes teach creative writing as lecturer.

How does your work as an industrial engineer inform your writing?

I am a very organized writer... at the beginning of a project I spend a lot of time researching, planning, and thinking about how to write the best characters, capturing their feelings, their passions, their ambitions, their dreams, their hates.  I try to control every aspect of my novels: the atmosphere, the plot, the twists, the drama, the suspense. This attention to detail comes from my engineer’s soul. But after all the preparation and organization, when you are inside the novel, writing turns into something even deeper … then, you forget all your static ideas and the adventure grows by itself, like something almost magical. I think good writing is an exciting mix of brain and soul.

Do you consider yourself a mystery author primarily?

I love mysteries. Humans are curious, and their curiosity is the reason that so many people love this genre. We all want to know the answers. And when we encounter a murder, we want to know who, how and why. But I love not only mystery, suspense, intrigue and thrillers. I love  a good plot, with deep characters. I am very interested in the feelings and motivations of my characters. Why do they act as criminals or lovers?  What do they learn and what do they teach us?

THE CORPSE READER won the Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain and has now been published in the USA. How do you feel?

I think this prestigious prize, the most important in Spain, has been a great opportunity for sharing my novels with more and more readers. Now, after publishing in the USA, I am very thrilled. Very few people know that only 5% of writers published in USA are foreigners, their work translated to English from other languages. I love the USA and how Americans enjoy books, films, and music. I think that part of my success comes from the inspiration I’ve found in successful American authors. So, my personal hope is that Americans will enjoy my books as much as I’ve enjoyed the American books I’ve read. It is like a debt of gratitude.

Do you intend to stay in the historical arena or are you considering other projects as well?

I like historical novels because there are so many real-life figures that readers aren’t yet familiar with and impressive real-life stories that are worth being told. Writing historical novels is very difficult because of the research involved: sometimes you need to spend two or three years before writing the first word. But the hard work is rewarded because you always discover amazing anecdotes or incredible real facts that thrill you and that you can use to thrill your readers, too. At the same time, I like other genres—modern thrillers and sci-fi—and I would like to try writing in another genre in the near future.

What are your plans for the next book?

Currently, I am finishing an exciting historic novel about Americans after the Great Depression. I cannot give away anything more, but I can promise you that this novel will be a fantastic discovery that will touch the heart of the readers, as the story is now touching mine.


–Kelli Stanley is the critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning crime fiction author of the 1940 San Francisco-set Miranda Corbie series and a "Roman noir" series set in first century Britain. She's won Mystery Readers International’s Macavity Award and the Bruce Alexander Awards for Best Historical Mystery, was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist for CITY OF DRAGONS, the first Miranda Corbie novel, and has been nominated for a Shamus and RT Book Review’s Awards. 

Her most recent novel, CITY OF SECRETS, won the Golden Nugget Award for best mystery set in California, and Kelli was recently mentioned as a literary heir to Dashiell Hammett by Julie Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter, in Publisher's Weekly. She lives in San Francisco. CITY OF GHOSTS, her next novel, will be published in 2014 by Minotaur Books.

This interview is one in an exclusive series of original author interviews arranged by Red Room editors as part of their Author Matchmakers series. Learn more about the series here, and arrange to be an interviewer or interviewee by writing to editors@redroom.com.