Interview With Elka Ray
Why don’t you begin by sharing a little about yourself.
I'm an only child and my family moved around a lot when I was a kid. I went to about a dozen different schools in Canada and the UK. Wherever we went I made new friends but then had to leave them, which was hard. What stayed constant were my books. I read and drew a lot as a child and now work as an author, editor and illustrator.
Could you tell us a bit about your latest book?
My suspense novel Saigon Dark came out with Crimewave Press last fall. It follows a Vietnamese-American woman named Lily Vo who's living in Saigon when tragedy strikes. Traumatized and isolated, Lily makes a harrowing choice that comes back to haunt her. It's a story about family, betrayal and belonging - and how hard we'll fight for the people we love.
I think deception - especially self-deception - is like poison. In Saigon Dark, I wanted to explore a woman who's unable to tell the truth.
How long have you been writing, and how many books have you published to date?
I studied Journalism and Asian Studies, then spent years doing media and communications work. Having lived in Southeast Asia since the mid-1990s, I focused on travel and cultural articles. I've contributed to many magazines and guidebooks. My first novel, a light romantic mystery called Hanoi Jane, was published in 2011. A short story collection, What You Don't Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia came out in mid-2016, followed by Saigon Dark at the end of the year.
Why did you decide to write in the crime genre?
I grew up reading classics, then trashy teen novels. In my twenties I read mostly literary fiction. When I was pregnant with my third child, who's now eight, I developed an addiction to crime fiction. You always hear about pregnant women craving weird foods - pickles with ice cream or Big Macs at 4 a.m. I craved mysteries and suspense. I couldn't read enough dark tales.
The premise of Saigon Dark had come to me about a year earlier but I started to flesh out the story during that pregnancy.
After my daughter's birth my insatiable appetite for crime stories waned a little. I still read a lot of crime today but am not as obsessive as I was during those nine months.
You may be wondering how my baby turned out. Well, from an early age, she's been weirdly interested in death. When he was around two, my son used to beg me to visit construction sites. A lot of little boys love trucks and heavy machinery. My daughter, on the other hand, wanted to visit cemeteries. She'd squeal and point, "Grave! Grave!" and ask creepy questions. How did they die? How deep are they buried? How many dead people do I know? Why? Why? I wanted to run away screaming.
It's like the chicken or the egg: Did the dark stuff I read shape her? Did she somehow influence my interests when she was in my body? Or is it just a coincidence - with no more meaning than a pregnancy craving for peanut butter?
All I know is that during that pregnancy I shifted to writing crime fiction.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas originate? Do you have a certain writing routine?
I live near the beach in Central Vietnam and love to swim. Most days I'm either in the ocean or beach-combing. New characters and stories often materialize when I'm swimming or taking long walks. I also work out tricky plot problems while swimming.
Once an idea comes you need to get it down fairly quickly or it's gone. I feel a sense of pressure to get the first draft out - the story you write today won't be the same tomorrow.
Do you have a favourite author, or writing inspiration?
Writers I admire include Daphne du Maurier, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Charles Dickens, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Dennis Lehane, Scott Smith, Stephen King (although I'm too chicken to read much horror), Sue Miller, Tana French, Donna Tartt, Susan Fletcher... There are many more but look these writers up.
What advice would you give beginning writers?
Read as much and as widely as possible - not just in the genre in which you plan to write. Read literary classics and recent best-sellers. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read writers of Indian descent, whose works tend to be lush and busy. Read Japanese and Scandinavian authors, whose language is often bare-bones.
When it comes time to write, read your prose out loud. If you stumble, your sentence is clunky. If you aren't familiar with George Orwell's rules for good writing, look them up.
Some useful and well-explained writing advice may be found on this blog: www.emmadarwin.typepad.com/
Do you have any amusing writing stories or anecdotes to share?
Many people don't understand that novelists make stuff up. Most plots did not really happen to us or to anyone we know. Most characters are not thinly-veiled copies of people we've met. Our job is to invent characters and stories that feel true.
After reading my short crime stories one woman I know said to me: "Wow! Where do you get these ideas? You don't even watch a lot of TV!"
I loved the assumption that writers sit around and steal their material off the tube.
You don't choose to be a storyteller: stories either come to you or they don't. What you need as an author is the patience to sit down and write and rewrite (and rewrite, repeat...) those stories until your prose is clear and precise.
What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
As well as writing for adults I write and illustrate for small kids. My drawings are bright and cheerful. I also produce cute, colorful drawings for Vietnam-themed greeting cards and souvenirs. Proceeds go to support poor kids in Vietnam who need genital/urinary surgeries: www.stickyrice.com
My latest obsession is gardening - although no one in my family has a green thumb. I replant stuff that grows wild near the beach (aka weeds) because I figure these plants might survive despite our care.
You can find Elka Ray's latest book Saigon Dark on Amazon.
About the Author:
Elka Ray is a UK/Canadian author and illustrator based in Hoi An, Vietnam. The author of one novel, Hanoi Jane, Elka also writes and draws an expanding series of children’s books about Southeast Asia, including Vietnam A to Z, 123 Vietnam! and The Warrior Queens. For adults, Elka focuses on crime fiction and mysteries. Her short stories have appeared in Monsoon's Crime Scene Asia: Asia's Best Crime Fiction 2014 (Hong Kong); New Asian Fiction (India) 2013 and Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction (Singapore) 2014. Her travel writing has run in a wide range of publications, including Fodor's, Forbes, Executive Traveller and Persimmon Asian Arts. Elka holds a Canadian degree in Journalism and Asian Studies and a Canadian diploma in Creative Writing. She has a sporty husband and two kids, works as a magazine editor, and has an author’s site at www.elkaray.com. When Elka’s not writing or drawing, she’s in the ocean.