By Sakshi Selvanathan
Rosanna Ley is the bestselling author of many novels which have a particular focus on emotional drama and human conflict, and are largely set amidst gorgeous landscapes that make for perfectly escapist reads. Read the Asian Review’s interview with the creative writing savant, Rosanna Ley, below:
We would love it if you could tell us a little about yourself and your writing career.
I write novels described as emotional drama, though it is always hard (and not always good!) to pigeon-hole these things. I’m interested in human relationships – whether within families, friendships or romance and also in how the past impacts on our present and our future. The books are set in Dorset where I live or sometimes Devon or Cornwall which I also love and in another country such as Italy, Spain, France, Cuba, and Burma. They are often dual timeline.
I also write articles and short stories and I worked as a creative writing tutor for over 20 years in various colleges and universities in the UK. I have also worked with community groups in therapeutic settings in the past and completed an MA in creative writing for personal development in order to support this. I also ran a ms appraisal service for writers hoping to be published.
Nowadays I concentrate on writing my novels, but I also run occasional workshops in the UK and I take groups on writing holidays to Andalusia twice a year.
I like travelling and my favourite country to visit is Italy. I live by the sea in West Dorset and my favourite writing place is anywhere with a sea view!
Where can we find your work and in which territories have they been showcased?
My novels have been published in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Lithuania, Denmark, Bulgaria, Turkey and the Czech Republic. All the titles are also currently being published by Quercus in the US.
Your novel Return to Mandalay has been the recipient of many accolades and has gained wildfire popularity: could you tell us more about it and what/who inspired you to write it?
‘Return to Mandalay’ was inspired by the story of my husband’s family. His late father worked in the logging industry in Burma and after he married, they lived in Burma where my husband’s three brothers were born. His late mother had a lot of source material relating to those days and this was incredibly useful and interesting. I changed the story a fair bit because I didn’t want to tell their family story or tread on any toes; I needed to make it my own.
The story centers around Eva and her grandfather Lawrence. She has often wondered exactly what happened to her grandfather Lawrence in Burma during the Second World War. But it is only when her job as an antiques dealer requires a trip to Mandalay that Lawrence breaks his silence and asks her to return a mysterious artefact he has in his possession – a carved and decorative wooden chinthe – to its rightful owner.
As Eva arrives in Burma her mission soon proves dangerously complicated and the treasure she is guarding becomes the centre of a scandal dating from colonialism and the final Burmese dynasty and with far-reaching consequences. Caught between loyalty and integrity, Eva is determined to find the truth about her grandfather’s past, her own family origins, and the red-eyed chinthe itself – enigmatic symbol of the riches of Mandalay.
Is the protagonist of the novel, Eva Gatsby, solely the product of your imagination or was she also inspired by someone you know/have met?
Imagination! I prefer not to use real people as the basis for any of my characters, although I’m sure the odd characteristic may creep in…
The covers of all your books are so brilliantly whimsical and transportive – and the one for Return to Mandalay is no different. Could you tell us about the significance of its cover? And are there particular emotions you wish to evoke in the readers through its imagery?
Thank you! My publishers are responsible for the covers which I also love, although I do get some say, thankfully. I would say that in the covers we are trying to evoke a sense of escape and romance, as well as sunshine and warmth. Sense of place is very important to me and I hope this comes over in the covers too.
You have deftly captured the scenic and cultural beauty of Burma in the book. But the country is presently embroiled in conflict and has undergone major political upheaval. Do you think that the readers’ impression of the vibrant landscape evinced in the book run the risk of being marred by the current political turmoil in the country? What is your take on this issue?
Yes, this is an important issue to address. My husband still has relatives in the country and it is a worry that the political situation there is so unstable and that there is currently such upheaval, injury and deaths. I could only write of the period in which my character visited of course, and at that time (and when I visited) things were relatively peaceful although there was some expressed dissatisfaction at Aung San Suu Chi still being under house arrest and so on. The story does cover a time of greater conflict (during the second world war) and for this I undertook research especially from the journals and memories of two men who had fought in those battles.
The vibrant landscape of Burma still exists beneath the current troubles and my impression at the time was of a peaceful land and people – but anyone who reads the book right now will bring their own view and knowledge of more recent events to the experience. This would arguably make it a very different reading experience, hopefully not ‘marred’ perhaps more a case of being saddened by what has happened? I don’t know. As a writer one cannot confidently foresee the future; one can only write it as it seems to be at that time, taking history into account.
How would you describe your writing style? And are there particular themes that you like to explore?
I think my writing is descriptive and I like to explore people’s internal thoughts and conflicts. There are plenty of themes that I have addressed, including those of loss, of family secrets, of control, addiction, family relationships and the power of love.
What was the last book you read that you enjoyed/had a significant impact on your outlook of life?
I loved Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers for the depth of detail in her 1950s setting and for the gentle irony and wit. I like books that get right into the head of one or more characters so that we feel everything that they feel and can become entirely immersed in their stories.
Are there any authors you admire deeply, and why?
Plenty! If we’re talking classics, I would mention Jane Austen for her irony and perfect sentence construction and DH Lawrence for his sensual writing – of love and of landscape. In current commercial fiction I greatly admire Lisa Jewell and Anthony Capella and in literary fiction I love Sally Rooney and Anita Shreve. But there are so many others…
Aside from writing, what are your interests? What do you like to do to unwind?
I like walking especially coastal and cliff-walking, playing tennis and table-tennis and travelling of course. I love reading and a good psychological crime drama on the TV.
What is your opinion on the need for people to engage in the creation (or consumption) of the literary arts amidst the ongoing, and rather stressful, COVID-19 pandemic?
People must do what is best for them. No-one should feel bound to create (or to consume). It’s hard to focus on creative works when there is so much anxiety. Just do what you can to get through. High expectation or pressure will only have a negative impact in the end, so just be kind to yourself.
Your latest novel, The Orange Grove (which sports another enchanting cover and has quite a ‘sweet’ storyline), was released earlier this month. Could you give us a peek into this latest venture and tell us more about it?
Thank you. Yes. The Orange Grove centers around Holly, who has a chance to leave her stressful city job and pursue her dream – of returning to the Dorset landscape of her childhood to open Bitter Orange, a shop celebrating the fruit that first inspired her to make her marmalade.
She asks her mother Ella to accompany her to Seville to source products for the shop. But Ella is strangely reluctant. The book then takes up Ella’s story of her first visit to Seville, where she was once forced to make the hardest decision of her life. Ella must finally face up to the past (another one of my themes) while Holly meets someone who poses a threat to all her plans.
Seville is a city full of sunshine and oranges. But it can also be bittersweet. Will love survive the secrets of the orange grove?
The Orange Grove will be out in paperback June 25th.