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Writer Elka Ray in Vietnam - Endless material in Southeast Asia

5 Jul 2020

Elka Ray writes fast-paced romantic mysteries and scary thrillers – a dichotomy that reveals her belief in Yin and Yang, or the balance of opposites. A great lover of scientific facts, she may be found clutching crystals for good luck; reads highbrow journals and tabloid trash, and refuses to watch romcoms yet moved in with her now-husband on their first date. Elka is the author of three novels and lives with her family near Hoi An, Vietnam.

Hi Elka, how has Hoi An been during this time of Covid-19?
It'd be hard to pick a safer spot than Vietnam to wait out this pandemic, with only 355 cases here to date and no deaths. The authorities took the disease really seriously from the start, sealing the borders, contact-tracing like crazy, and putting tens of thousands in quarantine.

They even tracked sales of cold meds at pharmacies to ID potential hotspots!
Thanks to strict and early interventions, life is pretty normal at the moment (early July 2020) - except there are no international flights or foreign visitors. Hoi An's a tourist town so it's suffering.

You have lived in Vietnam for 25 years, what were some of the deciding factors for you to stay?
When I arrived in Vietnam, in 1995, the country was newly opened to foreigners. Every single day I saw something that made me stop and think 'Wait! What's going on?' So curiosity drew me onward.
About ten years in, I was thinking about leaving when I met my husband, who's Australian-Vietnamese. For a while, we kept saying "five more years". Now, it's pretty clear we're going nowhere. Our friends are here. Our family is here. We still see a lot of opportunities. I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up with and in Vietnam.

As a mother of two children in Asia, what are some great things about having and bringing up kids there?
Five years ago, when my kids were six and eight, we moved from Ho Chi Minh City - a crowded city of nine million, to a small fishing village by the beach in Central Vietnam. It's been life-changing.
In the city, our kids were limited to living in cars and compounds. Here, they can walk or ride their bikes to their friends' places. Just last week the end-of-school-year party was held near our house on the beach.
My kids hold three passports and have spent their whole lives - barring holidays - in Vietnam. They're lucky to go to a good small international school where they've made friends from all over the globe. That multiculturalism is a blessing.

and any downsides?
Expat life can be transient. Good friends move away. Kids grow up and leave to study overseas. The plus side is that you literally have friends all over the world. The downside is that you miss having them here.

How did you first sustain yourself living in Vietnam?
I spent years working for local magazines and doing communications and PR work for big companies.

Do you get a lot of inspiration for your writing from living there?
While I suspect I'd have found writing inspiration anywhere, Southeast Asia has given me endless material. For one thing, so much of life happens outdoors here - young couples flirting, market ladies arguing... Very little is private. If you're a writer, you're a people-watcher. There's always something to see. Add to that the peculiarities of ex-pat communities. There's a lot of pettiness and privilege. For a mystery writer, that's a gold mine.

Any key advice for fiction writers who are or would like to be based in Asia?
Foster an online community. I found mine at - of all places! - Instagram. It's allowed me to connect with bookish people all over the world. Otherwise, it's easy to feel isolated.

Many people dream of moving to Asia to live on a beach, what advice can you give?
Get to know a place first. Many people go somewhere on holiday, fall in love with it, and mistake that for real life. If at all possible spend a few months somewhere before you full-on commit. And don't start a business until you've made friends-for-life local friends.

Any 'home-truths' people should know about the real beach life?
I've been on the beach full-time for five years now and still can't believe I got so lucky. My kids, however, treat going to the beach like a chore! My thirteen-year-old son just informed me his dream is to live over a mall…

What can you tell us about what you're working on this year?
My next mystery, KILLER COIN, is due out from Seventh Street Books in November 2020. It's the second book in my Toby Wong series, about a Canadian divorce lawyer who gets embroiled in a missing person's case on Vancouver Island. So it's set on a different type of beach - the tree-lined rocky coastline where I grew up. This book's definitely a beach read - a page-turning mix of romance, mystery and murder.

And leave us with your 'life philosophy'....
Be curious.