Ovidia Yu Q&A

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Why did you start writing crime books?

Because I love reading crime books. I love finding out more about the places my favourite books are set in (Louise Penny’s Canada, Donna Leon’s Venice, M.C. Beaton’s Cotswolds and Lochdubh) but at the same time I wanted to write crime books set here, where I live. It’s like how the school stories (eg The Chalet School, Mallory Towers,) I used to love got me to writing stories set in my school, featuring my schoolmates!

 


What do you love most about being a crime writer?

What I love most of all is being able to read all the crime fiction I want and tell myself that it’s ‘homework’. I really love going to crime conventions and meeting ‘real life’ writers whose books I’ve been devouring for years.

And of course I love the writing. Not always the struggle to pull things together and make sense. But there are magic moments, like when you first think of an idea. And, even better, when you’ve been stuck for ages because something just doesn’t feel right, and you’re in the shower or the swimming pool or cycling in the park and it suddenly hits you HOW it all fits together perfectly (with just a little re-writing and adjustments to the previous 25 chapters) and then you thank God for Evernote on your phone and type it in. Those are the moments I totally love most.

Oh and then there’s seeing your book cover from Killer Reads for the first time. That’s another big high happy moment. And the amazement and ecstasy when someone says she liked your book (doesn’t matter if they’re just being nice. Those moments are Awesome)

I guess there’s a Lot I love about being a crime writer!

 

What inspired you to write “Meddling and Murder”?

The seed of ‘Meddling and Murder’ came from a newspaper story about a woman who went on a tour of China and met a tour guide who later turned up in Singapore, moved in with her and started taking over her finances and isolating her from her family.

This was exciting enough to be a ‘true crime’ story, but I wanted to explore other aspects of being a foreigner in Singapore—especially if you look like you fit in but don’t—and the unconscious assumptions we (including Aunty Lee) make all the time, so it turned into an Aunty Lee story!

 

Can you tell us a little about the story? 

In this story, a missing domestic worker is assumed to be a runaway until other strange things begin happening. Aunty Lee blunders in to help, of course. But it is her smart, practical domestic helper, Nina, who finds herself in greatest danger.

 

Why do you think readers will fall in love with Aunty Lee?

Previous readers (from New York Jewish to UK Indian and Singapore Malay) have said they love Aunty Lee because she reminds them of relatives—mothers, aunts, grannies and even themselves at times! And this though I thought Aunty Lee was a typical Singaporean Peranakan Aunty. I hope it means I’ve captured some of the well-intentioned, busybody traits of the ‘feed you and fix your life for you’ women who were part of my growing up.

 

Food and cooking are obviously key themes in your stories – do you like to cook yourself?

I do cook a little—survival cooking. But I’m not a ‘good’ cook by any standard. Not like my aunts and friends/ mothers of friends who Aunty Lee is based on! But I do love eating. I think that just as you may have more opportunity to read widely and appreciate books if you focus on reading rather than writing, you get to appreciate a wider range (and quantity!) of food if you approach it as an eater rather than as a cook!

 

The Singapore setting in this story gives the story a wonderful flavour – have you always lived there? What do you most love about the city?

Yes, I’ve always lived in Singapore. When I was much younger I lived in England for a few years when my father was working there.

What I love most? The food, the people, the weather, the durian tree and mango trees just outside the compound, the squirrels and birds and monkeys and even the occasional snake that comes to visit.

And I like the way we’re mixed up here. On my apartment floor we have two Chinese families—one English speaking, one Chinese speaking—one Indian-Scandinavian family and one German Muslim family.

There are things about Singapore I’m not too happy about of course (and Aunty Lee shares those feelings!) like the strict censorship and keeping laws on homosexuality we got from England in the Victorian Era. But I believe in the basic honesty and good intentions of the government.

 

What is your favourite thing to do apart from writing?

Oh, reading for sure!

But I also wish I could spend more time drawing and painting. I used to draw out my own stories before I could write properly. And I have a guilty addiction to washi tape and stickers that I put in books to mark parts that I really love.

And walking my dogs and (currently) massaging and medicining one for her bad tummy are favourite tasks that I know I would miss. I probably wouldn’t get outdoors as much if not for them and I do love being outdoors.

 

What are 3 crime books you would recommend to everyone?

Can I recommend 3 crime writers instead? Anything by:

  1. Louise Penny–her mysteries feature beautiful but human characters who seem like real-life friends. And her settings have a sense of community that I want to create in my books and my life.
  2. Laurie R King–her writing fiction about Sherlock Holmes/lesbian detectives yet focusing on character and situation driven mystery stories made me feel anything is possible.
  3. Agatha Christie (of course!!!!!)—what I grew up reading. She created a fantasy England that is still more real to be than a tourist visit to England could be, along with ‘English’ values of justice and fair play.

These writers made me love reading and try writing. To do a little towards creating a version of my own country, with my books.

 

What do you hope people will get from this book?

While I hope this book will be read as an entertaining story, I hope readers will see how people far away in time and geography were/are driven by very similar impulses–good and bad.

 

How does this book make a contribution to the genre?    

This book features Singapore as I see it. I hope that it both fits into the traditional mystery genre (justice triumphs though human resourcefulness) and stretches it a little (by introducing a new, different setting). But most of all I hope readers will see beneath the surface differences to how alike we are in our loves and loathings!

 

Was there anything new you discovered, or surprised you, as you wrote this book?

I discovered how easily people misunderstand others. I talked to several people—neighbours, mostly—about prejudice, especially when directed against ‘outsiders’. And there were instances, like one woman thought another was avoiding her/racially prejudiced because she pulled her toddler away from her at the park bench. But the mother said she was trying to stop her child from bothering the first woman because she was reading… and she was so jealous of anyone who had time to read. Btw they are friends now so even if no one reads this book, ‘Aunty Lee’ brought about one good thing!

 

Author photo credit: Kar-Wai Wesley Loh (Memphis West)

Marnie Riches and Julie Shaw in discussion

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Whether writing about fictional villains or recounting the tales of real-life criminals, inspiration for Crime books has to come from somewhere. Crime novelist Marnie Riches and True Crime writer Julie Shaw discuss how real crime stories have influenced their writing…

 

On Born Bad – Marnie Riches

 

Living in Manchester – the UK’s most violent city – means that when I embarked on writing Born Bad, which is the first book in a series set in this gritty, rainy old capital of the north of England, I certainly wasn’t short on inspiration.

The Manchester that I grew up in was a tough place for a kid. I spent my first five years in a satellite council-estate overspill called Heywood. Once a semi-rural, tiny mill town, the Heywood of my infancy was comprised of high-rise tower blocks and streets of cheaply built local authority terracing. I lived with my mother on the 9th floor, if memory serves, in one of the high-rises. We had nothing. Absolute zero. But it wasn’t until we moved back into the heart of Manchester to an estate close to the infamous Strangeways prison (now HMP Manchester) that I learned what crime was. Burglary was and is rife. Few could afford cars in the 1980s on my estate, but I can report that Manchester has for many years been the car-crime-capital of Europe. Gang activity and drug-dealing in the poorer areas was and still is endemic.

When I was researching Born Bad (at this juncture, I’m at pains to point out that the characters are all 100% my own creation and in no way portrayals of the very real blue- and white-collar criminals that are out there) I read a lot of the reports in the Manchester Evening News. Obviously, being a native of Manchester, I absorb much of what goes on by a process of social osmosis – gossip, in other words. But the more lurid stuff is reported in the local news, and Manchester excels itself in terms of Class A criminal activity. People trafficking, prostitution, cannabis farms, embezzlement, all sorts of robberies – whether the theft involves shotguns at close quarters or the click of a mouse and harvesting of credit card details online. Plenty of murder and knife crime. Every so often, somebody annoys the wrong person and is set on fire. Yes. Set on fire. It happens. This is, after all, Manchester!

The question one might ask is why? Why is my hometown such a hotbed of unlawful activity? Why is it inspiring enough to make my new series about gangsters and the city’s criminal underworld ring so worryingly true? Well, I think poverty and lack of opportunity is mainly to blame.

In the Victorian era, Manchester was the beating heart of the industrial revolution. We had mills, factories, collieries…industry. Somewhere along the line, post-war, while other parts of the country were enjoying a boom, much of Manchester, its sister-city, Salford and its outlying mill towns – Oldham, Bolton, Radcliffe, Rochdale, Bury, Ashton – were still mired in the same tenement conditions as they ever had. I remember the 1970s as being a time of abject poverty, sink schools, rough estates, joblessness. It had been similar in my mother’s day and her parents’ before her. What do you do to put food on the table when you’ve left school with no qualifications and you can’t get a job? You either rough it on the dole or you do a bit on the side…you know? A bit of ducking and diving: handling stolen goods, dealing, burglary, shoplifting to order, working for cash in hand. You have a “fiddle” going!

I was lucky. I learned my way out of the ghetto and spent many years earning a good salary, working as a professional fundraiser for some of the biggest not-for-profits in the country. Now, I’m an author. But for many Mancunians, it’s not that simple. People fall prey to organised crime because it offers a quick win in cold, hard cash. But the side-effects of this miracle cure for being skint include violence as well as falling foul of the law and the tax man, hence the city earning its reputation as the most violent place in the UK.

This living in the shadows is what I write about in Born Bad – my own fictitious take on Manchester’s alternative life story. Read my first gritty, gripping novel and let me know what you think, won’t you?

 

Why I love writing True Crime – Julie Shaw

 

Actually, I get excited just thinking about it! We hear about terrible crimes on the TV and in the newspapers all the time, but we seldom get to know either the person behind the act, or the victim. This is what really interests me – the backgrounds of those people. What were their parents and siblings like? What kind of family did they come from? Were they the kind of children who went to school in nice, neat, laundered uniforms? Or did they go to school dirty, unkempt and tired out from the daily grind of living in a chaotic home?

 

The nurture v nature debate is one of the most exciting conundrums ever. Is criminality in a person’s genes? Were they always bound to have a cruel streak? Or was their early environment a factor in how they now choose to live? During my research into the stories I write about, I have met or learned about people on both sides of the coin, and this goes for both those who commit criminal acts and those who are their victims. Because exactly the same questions can be asked of the victims. Were they destined to be set apart from those in society who never get harmed? Were they brought up to not be assertive? Or did they have everything going for them and were simply unlucky?

 

As an author, I ask these questions every time I set out to write about real people with real lives and backgrounds, and I feel I owe it to the reader to go beyond what they have seen on the news; to offer some perspective on what might have led either criminal or victim down the path they found themselves on. And I try not to be biased, even if I know, or know of, the people personally. And very often I do. I have lived on the periphery of crime for most of my life and have some good friends who have, in their time, been prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics and petty criminals – not to mention some prolific criminals, too. And though I’ve never tested any of these murky these waters myself (nor would I want to) I have always been drawn towards wanting to know why. As one of my characters, Joey, says in the next book in the series – sometimes good people, for whatever reason, ending up doing bad things. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad people.

 

This is why I write true crime; because there’s no black and white. And I hope my books show just how much I love it.  It goes without saying that I hope the readers do too!

 

Born Bad is out now and Blood Sisters is out on April 20th.

Jane Casey in 10…

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1) Baddie or Goodie?

I personally am a goodie but I have a major weakness for baddies. They’re always so much more interesting.

 

2) The first story you remember writing?

I wrote a very earnest, Hans Christian Andersen-inspired account of the life of a 50p piece when I was eight. I was allowed to read it to my entire primary school. Surprisingly, they did not riot.

 

3) Your go-to comfort read?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It has absolutely everything I want in a book: clashing loyalties, unrequited adoration, champagne in teapots and roses that smell like raspberries. And, of course, murder.

 

4) The last book you read?

The last book I read was C. L. Taylor’s The Escape, which I read on a plane, in one go. Then I gave it to my mum and she read it in one go!

 

5) Summarise Let The Dead Speak in one sentence:

A murder investigation with no body, a house full of blood, a street where everyone has a secret, and a detective who won’t give up.

 

6) Where do you write?

In my local library, mostly, or on the sofa late at night after everyone else has gone to bed. Either way, there are few distractions and it’s beautifully quiet!

 

7) Favourite drink?

Champagne, but I genuinely can’t live without tea. The first cup of tea of the day is a sacred thing.

 

8) The most awkward book dedication you’ve seen?

Anything that incorporates a nickname or veiled references to something unsettling. Also, lavish praise for someone who is now an ex. Books sometimes outlast relationships and, like the internet, they never forget.

 

9) Last book you read in one sitting?

I actually read a lot of books in one sitting because if I have reading time, I make the most of it! I read Paula Hawkins’ forthcoming Into The Water in a single day and then lay awake that night thinking about it. She’s very clever!

 

10) The least likely thing you’d be found doing?

Clubbing. My motto is ‘dance when no one is watching’. It’s better for everyone that way.

 

 

Let The Dead Speak is out now.