Introducing Ovidia Yu
Ovidia Yu was born in, lives in and writes about Singapore. It was after dropping out of college that Ovidia entered her first writing competition. Her short story “A Dream Of China”, won first prize and it was only then that she dared to think about becoming a writer. The Frangipani Tree Mystery is the first in her Crown Colony series, and her first audiobook for Isis. Here she introduces us to her series character Su Lin, and the inspiration behind the books.
How did you get into writing?
I started out enacting stories with my toys, actually…But as far as “grown up” writing goes, I wrote a short story, “A Dream of China” that won a regional prize and I wrote several plays that got produced and since reading books was my favourite thing to do, writing my own books seemed to be like the natural next step.
Is there a book or author that’s inspired you most?
Different books and authors have inspired me at different times. But one that I fell in love with early and have returned to is Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love…Another author I was obsessed by for a while was J. D. Salinger…It’s Salinger’s Glass family stories that stayed with and influenced me the most. They were my pretend family for a long time.
Do you have a favourite character in fiction?
It’s a toss-up between Henrietta Savernake in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow and J. K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books. I wish I had a more mature answer, but these two characters keep me going.
Kindle, physical reader or audio listener?
All of the above! I prefer physical books, given a choice. But I love travelling with five or six books on Kindle, so I can switch if one doesn’t hold me.
"I listen to audio books when I’m on the treadmill at the gym or walking outside."
Do you have a strict writing routine or approach to planning?
The only “strict” part about my routine is forcing myself to take breaks. I use a Kanban Flow app when on my computer and set my Fitbit timer when I am writing on paper. Otherwise if I get carried away and forget to take breaks…I end up with cramped shoulders and a sore neck, eye strain and writing for the next couple of days is pretty hellish!
Do you have a favourite place to write?
I’ve got a computer set up I love — two monitors and lots of scribble paper within reach and the window to my left looks out on one of my favourite old trees.
Any writing snacks?
Chocolate. Preferably dark chocolate with hazelnuts or chocolate mint biscuits! But I try not to eat mindlessly…so these come not while I’m writing but as rewards for having written.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise your listeners.
I’m trying to figure out how to play Pokémon Go. I love the idea of visiting places and “meeting” cartoon characters. I used to love Neko Atsume but I was spending too much time playing with my virtual cats and I’m hoping collecting Pokémon’s will get me exploring unfamiliar places.
Crystal Yu recording The Frangipani Tree Mystery. "I never saw myself reflected in books when I was growing up – yes, there were the Jane Austens and the Thomas Hardys but I always felt like an impostor when I imagined myself as Elizabeth Bennet or Bathsheba. So to see 'me' not just reflected in books, but in characters that are intelligent, agentive, strong, determined and resourceful – against all odds. I loved Su Lin!"
What inspired you to write the Crown Colony Mysteries?
It started with wanting to collect scattered stories I’d heard from my parents and other relations of their generation. They would refer to something then say, “you wouldn’t understand”. But then when we got Downton Abbey and Foyles War on television, they started talking about how things were here in Singapore at the time. Not just the “history” of it but what they ate, the first car they owned, the dog that could sense and catch snakes and how it always growled at a woman who they as children suspected was a snake in human form…
Do you have an interest in this particular period in history?
Now more than ever, I think. The more I dig into what material I can find, the more interesting it gets. But I suspect this would apply to any period in history.
"Once you get beyond the facts and meet the human beings behind those Born/Married/Died dates, their stories come to life."
Why did you choose crime to explore the Crown Colony of Singapore over other genres?
The honest answer is I love reading and writing crime fiction. I believe people reveal their truest selves under pressure and being caught up in a murder investigation lets me show sides of my characters that might be hidden in normal social interactions. Crime fiction also allows me to explore issues that are as relevant today as in the 1930s…the crime of murder is immediately relevant because we are all vulnerable to death.
Introduce us to your series character Su Lin.
Chen Su Lin was born into a wealthy Straits born family. Her parents and younger brother died in a typhoid epidemic and she was left crippled from polio. All this, added to her being a girl, marked her as bringing “bad luck” to the family. Chen Tai, her grandmother (who pretty much runs the local black-market) was advised to put her down a well or give her away. But Chen Tai, being cannier than her sons and advisors, sent Su Lin to study English at the Mission School instead. With an English education, Su Lin might be able to get a job, since it was unlikely that she would ever get a husband. More importantly, Su Lin will be able to explain the strange ways of the ruling British to her family. And after she forms a working relationship with Chief Inspector Le Froy, she also finds herself explaining local ways to the British authorities.
How did you develop her character?
In age, Su Lin is somewhere between my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother was very proud of being the first female not just in her family but in her province to get a university degree and at one time she thought of becoming a writer. But instead she got married and had children and became a teacher.
"I like to think Su Lin is living the life my grandmother might have had if she hadn’t put family and respectability first!"
What’s your favourite quality about her?
That’s she’s practical and pragmatic. Life hasn’t been easy for her — she’s smart and hardworking but so many options are cut off because she is female and Asian, in an Asia ruled by white men.
If you could give Su Lin any advice, what would it be?
“It gets better.” I don’t know that’s true, but it’s the only thing worth believing.
What makes Singapore an interesting setting for a mystery series?
Singapore is a very small island city state, that maybe shouldn’t even exist. As former Indonesian President Habibie said contemptuously in 1998 during the Asian currency crisis, "Look at that map. All the green is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore. Look at that." But this tiny red dot supported Indonesia through that crisis. We first developed as an Asian trading hub under British Colonial rule (thank you, Britain) before becoming an investment centre and telecommunications and finance point. Being so small and so tightly governed means pressure can build up very fast with nowhere to go…All in all I’d say it’s a location crying to be written about. The golden age of British Crime Fiction came when genteel social conventions were thrown into upheaval by war and the Depression. Singapore has a lot of social and legal conventions worth tossing and examining.
If you could show us the sights of Singapore today, where would you take us?
Sorry, but I would buy you an EZ-Link card (an electronic smart card) that lets you ride on all the island’s trains and public buses and send you off to explore on your own. I strongly believe getting lost is the best way to get to know any city, and it’s perfectly safe to get lost in Singapore. However, I highly recommend you explore the park connector network which I love. The Round Island Route is 150km and I haven’t covered it all myself. And drop in on a hawker centre, where the best and cheapest food is!
Did you always set out with a series in mind?
I had only the one book (The Frangipani Tree Mystery) in mind when I started. But long before I finished it, so much material, so many ideas and anecdotes and natural sequels surfaced that I knew I wanted to do at least one other book (The Betel Nut Tree Mystery) and then another (The Paper Bark Tree Mystery), and now I’m working on the fourth book in the series!
How important are libraries for an author?
Very, very important, I’d say. Otherwise I could only read the books I can afford to buy (or resort to theft!) and I imagine that would leave me severely malnourished. But I’d say libraries are important for everyone. Saying libraries are important for authors is like saying kitchens are important for cooks — it’s true but nowhere near the whole story. I love libraries as a reader, not a writer. Here in Singapore my favourite library is the Jurong Regional, which I visit on weekends. I also love the Bukit Batok Branch library, which is much closer to home. When travelling I visit public libraries whenever I can, and friends who know me send me photos of libraries when they travel!
What are you looking forward to most about the Crown Colony Mysteries being recorded as audiobooks?
Hearing them through someone else’s voice. I’m terrified as well as excited. Like I’ve had a child go to college overseas and I’m looking forward to her return but not sure how much she’s changed or whether we’ll still have our special bond. But I’m so very happy and very excited and so looking forward to hearing them!
The Frangipani Tree Mystery will be available on CD and MP3 CD via our website and your local library from 1st July, read by Crystal Yu, and The Betel Nut Tree Mystery and The Paper Bark Tree Mystery will follow later in the year.