It’s been ages since I’ve published anything here, so let’s make it a great comeback: it is my pleasure to welcome Elka Ray, a Canadian/UK author, editor and illustrator. She lives in Vietnam and has books published in English and in Vietnamese. Her work includes novels Hanoi Jane and Saigon Dark and a short story collection What You Don’t Know. I think you should check her website and her books, of course.
Elka, tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a Canadian author, editor and illustrator who lives in Central Vietnam.
You write in many genres, crime and noir, romantic stories and children’s books — how do you manage to adapt to different Elka Ray’s voices?
My first novel, Hanoi Jane, is a light romantic mystery. I’ve just sold another romantic mystery titled Newly Wed, Nearly Dead that will be out with Seventh Street in early 2019. These books involve crimes but have a snappy and sometimes funny tone, plus female leads who are quirky and fearless. The humor is a lot darker in my short story collection What You Don’t Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery and Murder in Southeast Asia. Darker still is my last novel, Saigon Dark, which puts its central character in the awful position of having to cover up her child’s death. For kids, I write and illustrate a series of picture books about Vietnam. They’re relentlessly cheerful. I have no trouble switching tones. I’m a big believer in Yin and Yang. Life is full of ups and downs, joy and sorrow, light and darkness. Perhaps writing in these various genres helps keep me balanced.
Did you, as a female author, feel you had to face any challenges that you wouldn’t have to if you were male?
In years of interviews, you’re the first to ask this great question. Before having kids, I’d have said no. But being a working mother is tough. I miss out on networking opportunities such as writers’ conferences and festivals because it’s hard to travel with children. Luckily, I’ve had help from some great Vietnamese women who’ve kept my family clean and fed. Part of the reason I’ve stayed in Vietnam for over two decades is because childcare and house help are affordable here. Without this help, there’s no way I could hold a job, have kids and find the energy to write. I’d probably be in a mental asylum by now.
Did moving to Vietnam in any way affect your writing?
So many friends in North America and Europe seem exhausted trying to earn a living and raise their families. I’m not sure I’d have found the mental space and time to write if I’d been living in the West. Naturally, living here has involved tradeoffs. I’ve endured tragedies and stresses I wouldn’t have faced back in Canada. On the other hand I’ve had much more freedom and endless adventures. I’ve met all kinds of interesting and inspiring people, both Vietnamese and expats. Both as a person and a writer I’m so grateful to Vietnam.
Can you tell us a bit about Vietnamese literary scene, especially in crime and noir genre?
Sadly, I’m completely cut off from whatever literary scene there may be. I live in the countryside, in a small fishing village by the beach. My life is very quiet. I’m lucky that my friend and mentor, the great Scottish mystery writer A.D. Scott (The Highland Gazette series), lives nearby.
Do you do a lot of research or do you just sit and start writing?
I research as I go along. Thank god for Google.
Do you have any interesting rituals to get your creative juices flowing?
Have you ever written (or thought about writing) for film and television.
Some years back, some screenwriters came upon my (then unpublished) novel Saigon Dark and wrote a screenplay. The project fell apart when the lead actress and the movie’s financier got divorced. While this was bad luck, it was interesting to see how a screenplay is put together. It taught me a lot about pacing.
Who are your literary heroes?
The list’s so long my answer changes daily. The first names that spring to mind today are Daphne du Maurier, Hillary Mantel, Elmore Leonard, Michael Ondaatje, Tana French…
What are you working on at the moment, if it’s not a secret?
I’m revising a psychological suspense novel set on a remote (fictional) island off Canada’s West coast. In tone, it’s similar to Saigon Dark. Again, it explores the toll of living a lie. The main character is a nurse who’s secretly addicted to prescription opioids. She’s busy trying to hide her sins when she discovers that her husband also has plenty to hide.
Any advice for a young writer who’s just starting out?
Read literary classics and best sellers from every decade.
Thank you, Elka!