Ovidia Yu was already one of Singapore’s best-known writers, penning more than thirty plays before she had her first mystery published in the U.S., the tasty “Aunty Lee’s Delights” (HarperCollins), that made its illustrious debut this fall. Ovidia creates a delightful sleuth in her Aunty Lee character, a sweet, older widow with a penchant for cooking up mouth-watering Singapore cuisine when she’s not busy solving murders. Ovidia shares her thoughts on writing, her first trip to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, and what it was like seeing her novel on the shelves of a New York bookstore.
Q: How did you get the idea for your book and for Aunty Lee’s character?
Ovidia Yu: Aunty Lee is based very loosely on several “Aunty” characters I grew up with, both real family aunts and honorary “Aunties” as all (older than you) women are addressed. And most of all I think on my late uncle’s wife. Like Aunty Lee, she was a second wife of a much older man, like Aunty Lee she was a fantastic Peranakan cook, and like Aunty Lee, she really drew the whole family together just by providing meals, “come and eat” was the only agenda and that became a regular family tradition. Sadly, like Aunty Lee, she also lost her husband far too soon.
Q: Food plays an integral part in your story. Is cooking a passion for you?
OY: No, but I’m very interested in food and how different cultures see food. I hate the mass animal farming that produces much of what we eat now so I try to stay away from meat as an automatic choice. But I do love reading about foods and when you realize most of the traditional dishes that feature meat were once a year specials, you see why they were so rich and full of fats. I’m passionately trying to find ways to reconcile my fascination with food and cruelty free, planet sustaining eating though… I know it sounds contradictory. But though I write about murder, I don’t actually kill people either!
Q: You were an established playwright in Singapore prior to writing your first novel. What inspired you to write your first book and did you find any differences in writing a novel compared to a play?
OY: The biggest difference was the alone-ness of the working process. All my plays felt very much like team efforts because input from the director, the actors, even the set and lighting designers and wardrobe affect the end product and all that finds its way into the script. For me, the actors were the greatest influence. I liked having someone in mind when I wrote each part—even if someone else eventually played it on stage—it gave me a consistent voice and presence to anchor it through the play. When I first started writing fiction, I felt a bit lost. Until I realized I could “cast” people in parts there too, and it’s been much easier since. As for what inspired me? I think I’ve always wanted to write fiction. All my life I’ve always read a lot more books than I’ve watched plays, simply because there were more books available. So writing a book was always the big dream, and I’ve always had a novel-in-progress (or several) since I was about eleven years old. I just didn’t know much about how to go on from there.
Q: What was your experience trying to get your book published? Was it seamless or did you face any rejection?
OY: I got rejected a few times. Or rather, I wasn’t comfortable with some of the conditions that local publishers had. But then I was very, very lucky and got a literary agent willing to represent me, and she (Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary) sold the book to William Morrow and then everything seemed seamless to me from there on, but I suspect a lot of people were doing a lot of work that I just didn’t know anything about.
Q: Congratulations—you have a second Aunty Lee book coming out. Can you tell us the release date and a give a hint what readers can expect in this story?
OY: I’m afraid I don’t know–but I’m hoping very, very much it will be out for Fall 2014 because I’m signed up to go to Bouchercon 2014 that will be around then, and having a new book out at Bouchercon is a fantastic wonderful dream come true experience for any mystery writer!!!
Q: You recently flew to New York to see your novel in bookstores, I believe. What was that experience like?
OY: Thrilling! I got to sign copies in bookshops and I saw the HarperCollins offices where books are “born” and I got to go to my first Bouchercon (that’s how I know how much fun it is) and saw people like Louise Penny and Laurie King and Deborah Crombie and Anne Perry and Rhys Bowen in real life and that was super, super, super!
Q: Anything else I should have asked but didn’t?
OY: “Would you do it again?” Oh yes–again and again and again!!!
To find out more about Ovidia (her inspiration below on what makes a “dogged author”) or “Aunty Lee’s Delights,” visit https://www.facebook.com/OvidiaYuDoggedAuthor. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of the book!