I met Singaporean playwright and novelist, Ovidia Yu, last October at Bouchercon. Since then I've become a fan of her Aunty Lee series. She was kind enough to send me her recipe for her Virtuous Mango Smoothie to pair it with Aunty Lee's Deadly Special's. She also graciously answered questions about her writing and her books.
You live and write in Singapore and your books are set there. There are many elements that you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world, including the Singlish dialect. Did you start writing these books for Singaporeans or did you always know that you wanted an international audience?
I started writing my mysteries for Singaporean readers like myself who grew up loving English books but didn’t have blonde hair, blue eyes, a cottage in Saint Mary Mead or a brownstone on the south side of 35th Street. I’d written over thirty theatre pieces about Singapore people that people in Singapore seem to like and won some awards for Singapore themed plays and stories so I decided to try the same in a book. My first murder mystery was actually a novella called Miss Moorthy Investigates which was written as a joke for a friend also named Rani Moorthy, who was also a teacher then. The Singaporean publisher who brought it out no longer exists but thanks to that book I got an agent who I showed the seventeenth draft of Aunty Lee’s Delights to. She’s based in America so she was able to tell me what American readers might not understand, which helped so much.
You have had more than thirty plays produced. What do you find are the main challenges between writing for the stage and writing a book? Which do you like best? How do you know if a story is better suited to a the stage or a novel? Does it matter?
I love the theatre, I loved writing for the stage, but my big challenge was how difficult I found it to let go sometimes. When I first started out I would be in the audience every night rewriting lines that didn’t work—I don’t know how they put up with me—people sometimes came more than once to see what had changed! But that was great training for writing fiction because it made me realise that from each character’s POV he or she is the centre of his or her stage, no matter how minor the part might be. I dream doing an online epic where you can either sit back and watch constantly moving visual of people in a city going about their daily routines but when you zoom in and click on a fight or confrontation or just someone who seems to be doing a regular work commute, you see that she actually has a live cat or dead child in the bag she’s carrying… and her story unfolds from there. And if you had clicked on another character you might see the same story from the POV of the cat’s vet or that child’s classmate. And I could keep adding stories and characters…
But sorry, re: stage versus novel? No, I don’t think it matters. I think the stories are what matter because every story we get caught in opens up our lives and experiences a little. And because I hope we keep finding exciting new ways to tell our stories.
Your second Aunty Lee mystery features a chicken dish that is flavored by a nut that is poisonous unless it is cooked correctly. Have you ever eaten this chicken dish? Have you prepared it? Is anyone ever worried when eating it?
Oh yes, I’ve eaten it, I love it! It’s a great favourite here but very complicated/ tedious to prepare and I wouldn’t do it unless I was researching how long it would take to write into a book. But the buah keluak nuts commercially available today are already soaked and boiled and should be safe. But most cooks would (like Aunty Lee) still soak them for several days before using. They are an acquired taste which I’ve heard compared to mushrooms, which can also be poisonous…
What inspired you to start writing about Aunty Lee? What inspires you to write in general?
The first Aunty Lee was inspired by the newspaper account of a drowning on Sentosa (which today is a lovely resort island with peacocks but which as a haunting past under its former name Pulau Blakang Mati which in Malay means ‘island behind the dead’ in Malay. The second was inspired by exposure of an illegal organ transplant and the growth of prosperity gospel mega churches here (which I again got via newspapers and online gossip) and the third Aunty Lee started with the uproar that was triggered when a woman who adopted a rescue puppy had it put down even though she had signed papers agreeing to return it if the adoption didn’t work out. So in general—stories and people around me. I like to start there and work out what might have made people do what they did, and extrapolate extreme possible outcomes.
What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your writing?
The best thing of all is that now when I sit down to read I don’t feel guilty, I can tell myself I’m doing ‘research’ whether I’m reading fiction or non-fiction… I try to push myself to read out of my comfort zone so that I don’t get locked in a loop that gets smaller and smaller and doing research is great fun. Like I just completed a MOOC on Kierkegaard which led me on to Socrates and I was thinking it would be so great to do a murder mystery set in ancient Athens where Socrates’ mother Phaenarete the midwife solves crimes using what later came to be known as the ‘Socratic Method’ when applied by her son. It would be so great too because the name ‘Phaenarete’ means ‘one who reveals virtue’.
In the next Aunty Lee book, Chilled Revenge, she has to tackle a glut of ripe mangoes among other things—having too many ripe mangoes is one of my favourite problems, and this drink is one of my favourite solutions. It’s delicious and full of healthy protein and fibre and occasionally a dash of something extra.
Virtuous Mango Smoothie
1 soft ripe mango
1 bowl of silken tofu
(If you’re under 21 stop here)
A generous dash of tequila
Peel and chop the mango and blend with the silken tofu, leaving some chunks aside. Put the blended mixture in the freezer for a couple of hours then blend again, with the tequila, and add the reserved chunks. It is one of my favourite drinks, but then I love sweet mangoes!
You can see a pairing of Ovidia Yu's first book, Aunty Lee's Delights with the Singapore Sling here.