Ovidia Yu is one of Singapore’s best-known and most acclaimed writers. She has had more than thirty plays produced and is also the author of a number of mysteries that have been published in Singapore and India.
NAW- How long have you been writing? What made you decide that you wanted to become a writer?
I discovered I wanted to write when I fell in love with reading when I was around ten or eleven years old. Creating stories felt so exciting and fun. My friends were playing at dressing up dolls and I would come up with adventures for them (the dolls and sometimes the friends!) to act out.
NAW- Tell us about your book ‘Aunty Lee’s Delights.’ How did you get the idea for the book?
I’ve always loved mystery stories, starting from Enid Blyton moving through Agatha Christie and PD James and even right now the favourite writers on my reading table are Tess Gerritsen and Louise Penny. But I also wanted to write about the Singapore and Singaporeans I know. Here in Singapore everyone has kaypoh (busybody) aunties who know everything about everybody and cook up fantastic meals so I summed up the essence of the aunties I knew to create Aunty Lee. I’m not being sexist or ageist by the way. Some of the most ‘aunty’ people I know here (in terms of food and people knowledge) are guys who are younger than I am!
NAW- Tell us about your other works?
I started out writing short stories, poetry and theatre pieces. In fact I spent about twenty years writing for the theatre and I’ve had over thirty pieces staged in Singapore and beyond. It was tremendous fun, but I realised I really wanted to move back to my first love of fiction. And again harking back to age when I first discovered reading I wrote a children’s book, The Mudskipper, which was the runner up for both the Scholastic Asia Book Award and the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award.
NAW- I have lived in Malaysia and Singapore, so I have some idea of the literary scene in the two countries. Singapore does fare better in English fiction but did you ever feel you were discriminated for being a South Asian writer? There is this sentiment that South Asian writers are generally neglected and have difficulty getting their work published as compared to their western counterparts. Did you ever come across something of this sort?
I’m very aware of the sentiment you speak of, but I have been very lucky. Because Singapore is a very small publishing pond, local readers, publishers and booksellers are extremely supportive of our writing attempts. To compensate for the discrimination/invisibility and other difficulties our National Arts Council offers writing grants and helps fund marketing and publishing… though I must admit I find filling in application forms almost harder than writing books! I suspect that for us as for our western counterparts, the greatest struggle is still sticking to the writing long enough to complete a decent work and then knowing when to tie off and snip the placenta even though it is not yet that mythical perfect work!
NAW- Tell us about your struggles. How was the journey to becoming an established writer?
Again I’ve been very lucky. The struggle for me has been about keeping focused on trying to find a write-life balance as opposed to struggling to find food, clean water or medicine… in other words no struggle at all! The turning point marker for me was when I dropped out of medical school.
Having lived in Singapore and Malaysia, I suspect you’ll know what I mean when I say it seemed natural to apply to do Medicine because I had always done well in school—simply because it was the hardest course to get into and came with a bursary. Then after getting in, I realised I didn’t want to be a doctor, which would be the natural consequence of completing the course. (Obviously that was before I discovered Tess Gerritsen and her books!). My first paying job was as editor of the ‘Bride and Home’ magazine and I learned a lot there about writing for an audience very different from myself. I think the biggest difficulty I had to deal with was feeling I had disappointed my parents. I remember the year after I dropped out of Med School I won the Asiaweek short story competition. My Dad was so happy, talking to reporters and the television people (who came because I was the youngest winner they had had) but when I asked my Mum if she had read my story she said, “I don’t see what’s the big deal.”
So last year when I gave my Dad a copy of Aunty Lee’s Delights and he said “I’ve always been proud of you” that really meant a lot to me!
But ultimately the biggest step up for me came with my agent, Priya Doraswamy, selling Aunty Lee’s Delights to William Morrow/ Harper Collins. By that time the manuscript was in its 19th draft and had been turned down three times so you can probably see how much it meant to me.
NAW- What made you write a mystery novel? Aunty Lee’s become something of a sensation. Did you anticipate this level of success while you were writing it?
I wanted to write a mystery novel because I love reading mystery novels! I love the traditional mysteries because it gives me a structure and outline which I can fill with anything I want. Otherwise I would never get started because there are so many things I want to write and so many ways to write them! But a mystery is like a piano sonato. You get a fast movement, a slow movement and a fast movement and within that you can put all the magic you are capable of.
As for anticipating success, being published by William Morrow and making it onto the Singapore bestseller list and speaking at Bouchercon are already way beyond any success level I dared dream of!
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What are your hobbies apart from writing? What do you do when you are not writing?
When I’m not writing (or reading) I have a whole list of things I should be doing, like exercising and decluttering but that just means I spend more time writing in order to avoid them. I am trying to keep up a home yoga practice via YogaGlo (versus spending as much time getting to and from class as in class) and learning French through weekly classes at the Alliance Francaise and daily exercises on DuoLingo. Yes, I have a slight app-addiction! I also get most of my writing routine support online via Lift Habits and The Magic Spreadsheet—oops, slipped back into talking writing.
Away from writing I love my two dogs. I used to volunteer at the SPCA but since adopting Peach and Hermione I’m focusing on creating a stable family pack for them. Thanks to them I get out for a walk at least twice a day which is good for me too. I also have two rescue turtles (I stopped a man from putting them into a storm drain. His son was bored with them, he said) a tankful of fish and a patio of potted plants.
NAW- Are there any literary influences that you would like to name?
Everything I’ve read and loved has influenced me! But most of all:
Louise Penny. I met her and Michael in person when they visited Singapore. I had not dared submit my books to anyone yet. I think I held an unconscious belief that real book writers were all miserable, driven and a bit mad. So when I actually met Louise Penny after loving her books (it was the Quebecois setting of her books that made me want to learn French) and found she was a warm, funny, happy person in real life it did to me what I imagine seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary happily helping out at a soup kitchen might do for a Catholic.
Ebony magazine. Because in the 1970’s when I was growing up Asian far away in Singapore, this African-American focused magazine showed me internationally successful and fascinating non-white people. And even more because I realised in subsequent years that the portrait of America it presented might not have reflected the actual situation in much of America then but what it has since become. It made me want to write not just about how things are but create visions for people of how they can be.