NZ Booklovers talks to Vicki Virtue.
We understand that you’re the Writer-in-Residence at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little about the residency?
The residency was established in 2019 following the restoration of Raffles Hotel. The idea behind it is to offer authors a place to retreat and draw inspiration from the hotel’s stunning architecture and rich literary heritage. For over a century, Raffles Hotel Singapore has played muse to renowned writers and the aim of the Writer’s Residency Programme is to continue that tradition by nurturing creative excellence in the newly restored hotel, including the fabulous new Writers Bar.
What does the residency mean to you?
It is a huge honour to be Raffles’ second invited Writer-in-Residence, following on from Pico Iyer, arguably the world’s greatest living travel writer. For any writer lucky enough to be included in the programme, it is impossible not to feel inspired by the hotel. As far back as 1887, men of letters such as Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad have inaugurated Raffles’ legendary literary tradition.
The first time I stayed at Raffles, I remember sitting in Writers Bar basking in the legacy of these literary greats that had crossed the fabled threshold before me, and whilst I sipped on a chilled glass of Billecart-Salmon, I dreamed of penning my own novel like Somerset Maugham, sitting under a frangipani tree.
Little did I imagine then that I would one day return as Writer-in-Residence, having written that novel (albeit not under a frangipani tree) and sipping cocktails inspired by the characters in it.
What inspired you to write this series about former MI6 agent Victoria West?
The Victoria West series was born while I was sailing up the River Nile in Egypt. I was lounging on the deck of a glorious dahabiya, with a cooling lemon drink in one hand and Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile in the other, when a fortuitous sign cruised past in the shape of the SS Sudan – the same vessel Agatha had travelled on in 1933. The boat still had all the Belle Époque refinement that Agatha had immortalised, and was the epitome of the Golden Age of travel; a time when one dressed for dinner and journeyed in style.
It might have been the heat from the Egyptian sun, but it was at that point that I decided I wanted to bring back the fun and glamour of the Golden Age detective novel, but give it a modern twist, as an antidote to the gritty crime noir that proliferates. I also wanted to use my background as a travel writer to set each book somewhere new and exotic so readers could escape to glamorous places and enjoy new cultures and cuisines while they figured out whodunnit.
Of course, this meant I needed a protagonist who loved travelling as much as I did. So, Victoria West was born.
What research was involved (if any)?
The starting point for each book in the Victoria West series is the location and the most important thing for me as a traveller is to ensure the authenticity of the setting. I want readers to feel transported, and for me to take them on that journey, I need to spend time in a place understanding the food, the atmosphere, the culture, the weather, the humour of the people and myriad other smaller details that make each location so unique.
Having lived in Singapore, I had a head start for The Raffles Affair, but I did need to go back and spend time at the hotel post restoration to ensure I had all the atmospheric details correct. I didn’t want to send a character walking down a corridor that didn’t exist or have the wrong colour chairs in the lobby, because I knew somebody staying at the hotel would pull me up on that.
It’s also important for me, right at the beginning, to know a place well enough to be confident that I will enjoy living with it in my head for a year while I write the book. And in addition to that, I need to consider whether the setting is glamorous and exotic enough to set a Victoria West novel. I want readers to bask in the glorious escapism of each book and the reason I chose Singapore for Victoria West’s first adventure is the mystique of Raffles has long drawn me to the hotel. Throughout its history, Raffles has been a meeting point for global travelers and after all this time, it still stands for luxury and extraordinary adventure.
This is what made it the perfect setting for the first Victoria West novel. It melds together the old and familiar with something new and exciting. I’ve always been attracted by these contrasts in life, especially when I travel - mixing the past with the present, combining the familiar with the unfamiliar or enjoying luxury at the end of a rugged adventure. It is these contradictions that give my life its variety and richness, and it is that sense that I wanted to bring through into the series.
Victoria West’s arrival at Raffles Hotel in the beginning of the book mirrors my own experience the first time I stayed there. I was fresh from trekking in the Himalayas and arrived with my boots caked in mud and my hiking pants coated in a layer of dust. In The Raffles Affair, Victoria West arrives in a similar state after a gruelling three-month assignment in East Africa. And as it has done on many subsequent occasions for me, Raffles Hotel provides her with the solace of familiarity that she needs before setting off on her next adventure.
As a former travel writer, location research is familiar territory for me and something I enjoy. But of course, there are innumerable other elements that need to be as thoroughly researched and I find it fascinating exploring these new fields. For example, there’s a financial theme running through The Raffles Affair and I needed to make sure those details were all correct. It’s not an industry I know well, so I spent time talking to specialists in that field.
I also have a character in the book who is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and in order to understand her world, I reached out to friends and acquaintances with experience in that industry to ensure I was using the correct jargon and my theme in that area was sufficiently plausible.
When it comes to less major themes, I find the internet a wonderful resource. In The Raffles Affair there is a lot of reference to fashion, food, drink, and in one instance, an ancient Chinese knife. If I don’t have personal knowledge of these areas then I turn to the internet, again to have as much accuracy in the book as possible.
And of course a whodunnit wouldn’t be a whodunnit without a murder, and even though I’m not writing a police procedural, I do want to ensure my forensic and medical portrayals are accurate. For this first book I got in touch with the forensic departments of the New Zealand and Singaporean police forces, and they were extremely helpful educating me of the finer points of dealing with a crime scene. I’m also lucky enough to have friends in the medical profession, who not only enjoy dreaming up ways to kill off my characters, but are also very generous with their time advising me how to despatch a character with a high degree of accuracy.
The wonderful thing I have discovered being a crime writer, is that if I have a question, most people are only too willing to help me answer it.
What was most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
Having started my writing career as a non-fiction writer, the most challenging aspect of writing a novel for me was learning the art of writing fiction – which is a very different style.
Then on top of that, I had to learn how to craft a whodunnit. The reader doesn’t want to figure out who did it on page five, so I had to understand the rules about not to giving away too much, too early, but at the same time, I couldn’t hold anything back from the reader, because that would be cheating! Getting that balance right was a huge challenge and it’s an art that I’m still perfecting.
The other big challenge I found in writing a whodunnit of this nature, was differentiating the characters sufficiently so the reader didn’t become confused. This was especially important in The Raffles Affair because I had a large cast of suspects and a lot of clues that needed to be buried amongst them all.
I was also adamant about being true to the whodunnit genre and keeping the story light-hearted, which can be a challenge when you’re writing about murder. But I didn’t want to descend into gruesome descriptions and deep psychological analyses of the characters; I wanted to give readers an escape from daily life, rather than remind them about the grimmer aspects of the world we inhabit. Goodness knows, we all need a bit of light relief right now. But at the same time, I had to be true to how a character would feel about the death of a loved one – or in some cases - not quite such a dearly loved one!
What is your routine or process when writing? Do you have a typical writing day?
I’m very much routine person, so yes, I have a well-regulated day. I generally start writing at about 9.30am and spend my morning revising what I have written the day before, and then in the afternoon I move on to the next chapter and generally finish up at about 6 or 6.30pm.
As much as possible I try to do my admin in the evenings and weekends so my days are free for writing, which tends to work well as I’m often on the phone at night liasing with editors and publishers in other time zones.
I also use my weekends to review what I have written during the week. To get the overall arc of the story, I find it helps to sit down and read a hard copy like I would a book.
Having a background as an actor, the one process I do find very helpful when I’m writing, is to act out the dialogue. That allows me to get the tone of voice right for each character and it also helps me understand their individual physicality. I’m not sure what the neighbours think of my antics, especially when I’m writing the death scenes, but I find the process useful.
Where do you write? Do you have a special writing place?
I need silence when I write, so I find the best place to write is at home. We recently renovated our inner-city apartment into a gorgeous contemporary, art deco space, so it’s perfect for writing modern adaptations of Golden Age whodunnits. Within the apartment, I have a dedicated library to work in, where I’m surrounded by books and an ancient world map on the ceiling. I’m very spoilt; it’s a lovely space to work in during the week.
On the weekends, we generally escape on our boat and that’s where I’ll review my work from the week. I find being at sea very relaxing, so it’s the perfect place for me to reflect on what I’ve written in the week prior and to ponder what I’m going to write in the week ahead.
Can you share a piece of good advice you've received about writing?
When I first had the idea of writing a novel, a writer friend said to me, ‘That’s great, but don’t talk about it, write something. Then you’ve got something to talk about.’ And I think that was fantastic advice, because often the hardest part of writing a novel is getting started. And it doesn’t matter how badly you start, but once you’ve started, you’ve got something to work with.
My editor also gave me a useful piece of advice as I was transitioning from writing non-fiction to fiction. She told me to make sure that all my narrative added to either atmosphere, character or theme. I still judge my narrative writing by that one simple piece of advice because it creates texture in the story.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Travelling is one of my favourite pastimes and I particularly enjoy getting off the beaten track in the Middle East and Africa. And even though I have visited over 50 countries, there are still plenty more I want to explore.
I also love anything to do with the water. Having a boat, we spend a lot of time out on the Hauraki Gulf around Auckland and I make the most of that with swimming, scuba diving, surfing and stand up paddleboarding.
I like to keep active when I’m not on the water as well; I find sitting at a keyboard all day physically constricting. So when I’m in town, I like to keep up my walking, roller blading and yoga practice and then when I have more time, I enjoy heading away hiking and skiing.
I’m also working on getting my French language skills back up to speed. Since moving back to New Zealand, I have let my fluency slip, so I’m taking regular lessons to get that back on track. With my second book set in the South of France, I’m enjoying re-immersing myself in the language as well as the food and culture.
And of course, I love reading.
What’s next for you? While I am here at Raffles Hotel Singapore, I’m concocting the plot for book number three and working on the initial script for a theatre play – which is another murder mystery, but without the Victoria West character.
Then after Singapore, I’ll be flying to India to launch The Raffles Affair there and then we will continue on to France so I can put the finishing touches to book number two.
Following on from France, I’ll head to London to get started on a film adaptation of The Raffles Affair. And then after that I’ll be heading back to New Zealand where we have some exciting plans to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Ngaio Marsh’s death. Who of course was one of the Queens of the Golden Age whodunnits. So it’s going to be a busy year!