Elka Ray is the author of one novel, Hanoi Jane (Marshall Cavendish, 2010), and two children’s books about Vietnam: Vietnam A to Z and 123 Vietnam! (Phan Thi Press, 2012) that she also illustrated. Elka holds British and Canadian citizenship and has spent the last 18 years living in Vietnam, where she works as a writer and editor. This year, Elka’s short story “The Yellow River” was featured in Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. Another story, “You Get What You Pay For”, was included in Monsoon’s upcoming anthology Crime Scene Asia: Asia’s Best Crime Fiction. Elka’s travel writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and guidebooks, including Executive Traveler, Persimmon Asian Arts and Fodor’s. Elka has a website and blogs about life in Vietnam at www.elkaray.com
NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?
When I was 11 a teacher told my mother that I would be a writer. It took me a while longer to figure it out. I studied Journalism at university in Canada in the hope that a print-media job would allow me to write and earn a living. While I still work part-time as a magazine editor, my true love is writing fiction.
NAW- Tell us about your book ‘Vietnam A to Z’. Was writing for children difficult? How did you get the idea for ‘Vietnam A to Z’?
I’ve lived in Vietnam for going on two decades. My husband is Vietnamese-Australian and we have two young children. I wanted to read our kids fun books that celebrated their Vietnamese heritage and couldn’t find any. To fill the gap, I wrote and illustrated ‘Vietnam A to Z’ and ‘123 Vietnam!’.
The books are bilingual and aimed at kids aged two to six. They use simple text and funny illustrations to explore Vietnam’s culture and landscape. The response has been so good that I’m now working on a third book, ‘The Wheels on the Bike’, and producing a range of greeting cards, magnets and bags featuring my Vietnam-themed artwork.
NAW- How did ‘Hanoi Jane’ happen? Tell us about the research you did for Hanoi Jane?
While ‘Hanoi Jane’ isn’t based on real events, I think anyone who has lived far from home will relate to the main character’s feelings of homesickness and alienation. It tells the story of Jane, a young American reporter who is dumped by her fiance and dragged into a mystery shortly after moving to Vietnam. As well as getting revenge, Jane ends up falling in love with her new home: Hanoi. When I was young and single I spent nine years in Hanoi and still miss it.
NAW- Is there a good market for English fiction in Vietnam? Did you face any trouble in finding publishers for your first book?
No. The market for English-language fiction in Vietnam is small. ‘Hanoi Jane’ was published overseas. My Vietnam-themed kids’ books are bilingual, and are sold both in Vietnam and abroad. Many people of Vietnamese descent live overseas, especially in the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and France. I hope my kids’ books will help these families to teach their kids about their roots.
NAW- Tell us about your other job as an illustrator? Which is more fulfilling, writing or illustrations?
As a child, I loved to draw, but when I grew up, I stopped drawing and focused on writing. Some years back I suffered a bad eye injury and couldn’t use the computer. Since I was unable to write, I drew the illustrations for ‘Vietnam A to Z’ and ‘123 Vietnam!’. The response was very encouraging.
I’m currently working on a literary mystery about the murder of a French Catholic priest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in the 1930s. After writing emotionally-draining scenes about racism and homophobia it’s rejuvenating to draw funny pictures for children. It’s a good balance.
NAW- What are you reading right now? Are there any authors that you would name as influences?
While I read a wide range of genres, I will never turn down a good mystery. I’m currently reading ‘North Sea Requiem’ by A.D. Scott. Her series is set in the highly atmospheric Highlands of Scotland.
As for literary influences, if my parents had not read to me as a child, my life would be very different. When I was very young my dad read me British classics like ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’. My mother read me old picture books like ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’.
NAW- Writing is not looked upon as a full time vocation in many countries, were you aware that making a living solely out of writing is difficult when you first started out?
It is still difficult. I work part-time as an editor to help pay the bills. I would not encourage anyone to ‘become a writer’. There are many easier ways to make a living. It’s something you do because you have no choice: Either you find some way to write, or you’re unhappy. I feel very blessed to be doing what I love best.
NAW- Please name your 5 favourite books.
1) In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
Beautiful, poetic novel about the founding of Toronto.
2) Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
I read ‘Great Expectations’ repeatedly as a teenager and young adult. Memorable characters, brilliant settings.
3) Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
A riveting novel about Thomas Cromwell, a minister to King Henry VIII of England. The first book in the series, Wolf Hall, won the Man Booker in 2012.
4) A Simple Plan, Scott Smith
I love mysteries and this is among the most engrossing I’ve ever read. It was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1998.
4) Greedyanna by Frank Remkiewicz
While this kids’ picture book isn’t famous, I think it should be, as it’s genuinely funny.
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
I’m in the midst of producing greeting cards and giftware with my Vietnam-themed drawings. After that, I’ll start on another Vietnam kids’ book ‘The Wheels on the Bike’, a local (and visually funny) adaptation of the kids’ song ‘The Wheels on the Bus’.
In terms of adult fiction, I’m on what feels like the thousandth draft of a literary mystery set in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in the 1930s.
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