Interview with Expat author - Elka Ray
My name is Elka Ray. I was born in England, grew up in Africa and Canada, and live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
1. Why did you move abroad?
I studied Journalism and Asian Studies at university and was intrigued by Vietnam’s history. After I finished my B.A., I came here “for one year” to find a thesis topic. That was almost 18 years ago.
2. How do you make a living? Are you a fulltime writer?
For the past decade I’ve worked two weeks out of each month editing a travel magazine. I write fiction during the other two weeks. Before that I held a number of media-related jobs, all of which involved writing or editing. I started out writing travel and lifestyle features for magazines and guidebooks. These days, I travel less than I used to because I have two young children.
3. How did you start the process of writing a book and get it published? Did you go to a publisher? Self-publish?
My first novel, Hanoi Jane, was published by Marshall Cavendish as part of their “Asian chic lit” series. It’s a light romantic adventure set in Vietnam. My bilingual kids’ books, Vietnam A to Z and 123 Vietnam! were first published by Vietnam’s largest children’s book publisher. I then republished them in the United States, targeting parents of Vietnamese descent who want to celebrate their cultural heritage.
I also write short stories. Submitting to journals and anthologies is a good way for newer writers to get published. One of my short stories was just chosen for Monsoon’s Crime Scene Asia: Best Asian Crime Fiction. This collection unites two things I love – Asia and crime stories. I think it’ll be popular with expats. Another of my stories, which is essentially a ghost story, just came out in Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction.
4. What was the hardest part of taking your writing to a book format? Did you blog before writing your book?
I started blogging after I published Hanoi Jane, to help market the book. I blog about the lighter side of my life in Vietnam, and throw in historical tidbits and cultural trivia. Blogging is a great way to connect with people and give them snapshots of your expat/writing life.
I write everything – kids’ picture books, short stories for adults and novels. I floundered for years before learning how to plot a novel. If you don’t know the full story, and know your characters inside out, you’re wasting time when you sit down to write. Of course things will change as you go along but you need a strong skeleton.
5. What is your perception of the expat book market? Has it changed throughout the process?
The media is full of stories about publishers going bust, and how people don’t read anymore. But I think a lot of expats do read. They’re adventurous. They want to be entertained. And they want to learn about new places. Most of my readers have lived or traveled in Asia. Tourism keeps growing here, so my market will grow.
6. What is your favorite part of the book?
Hanoi Jane is about a young American woman, Jane, whose life falls apart after she moves to Vietnam. Her fiancé dumps her for another woman who seems perfect but turns out to be a con-artist. Jane ends up on a wild adventure that takes her into Vietnam’s northeastern mountains. She makes new friends, busts a crime ring and learns to love her new home. I love the scenes set in the mountains, which are stunningly beautiful. This region is home to many ethnic minority groups. Traveling there is a true adventure.
7. What was the most difficult part to write?
Hanoi Jane is a light, fun book and it was fun to write. I knew the story and characters very well before I sat down to write it, so the actual writing was easy.
8. Besides your book, what book should everyone read?
George Orwell’s Burmese Days should be required reading, especially for expats in Asia. Ditto Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. And I think every intrepid woman should read Lesley Blanch’s “The Wilder Shores of Love” (non-fiction), which recounts the stories of four fearless European women who explored Asia and the Middle East in the 1800s.
9. What advice would you give to other expats that want to write a book?
Wanting to write a book won’t get one written. You have to actually sit down and write it. Stick to a schedule. If possible, write daily. Map out the plot. Know what scenes are needed to move your story along. Jot down everything you know about your characters. Hear them talking. As you write, your story will change, but it does help to have that basic outline.
This is obvious, but writers need to read. Read everything, from literary prize winners to popular trash.
Finally, write like you talk. Read your writing out loud. Do you stumble in spots? Does it sound weird? If so, rewrite it. Writing is about 20 percent creation and 80 percent rewriting. Unfortunately, rewriting is less fun, but essential.
10. What are you working on now? Do you have plans to publish another book?
I’m now working on a thriller that some movie producers have already optioned for a movie. On the surface, it’s about a woman who abducts an abused child. But underneath it’s about what it means to be a good mother. It’s quite a dark story and is emotionally grueling to write. My other project is a historical murder/romance set in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Again, this is a much deeper story than Hanoi Jane, about racism, homophobia and obsessive love. In comparison, writing – and reading – Hanoi Jane was like being on holiday!
While I write (and read) across many genres, all of my stories involve a mystery. My characters are looking for answers or trying to hide things. I certainly hope my work will continue to be published and read - Touch wood!
Elka Ray is a Canadian author and illustrator based in Vietnam. Her works include Hanoi Jane, a novel, and two kids’ picture books, Vietnam A to Z and 123 Vietnam! , that she also illustrated. You can also read her expat Interview, From the UK to Canada to Vietnam: Saigon- Why Am I Here?