Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
Hi, I’m Karien van Ditzhuijzen and I just turned 42.
Fiona: Where are you from?
Technically I am Dutch, but haven’t lived in the Netherlands for a long time. The last six years I lived in Singapore and before that, six years in the UK. Before that many other countries: Oman, Malaysia, France… You can say I am a global citizen!
Fiona: A little about your self (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
I have a masters degree in chemical engineering and sustainability, but like to keep that quiet as I worry people will ask me difficult questions I have forgotten the answers to. I now combine looking after my three children with working with an NGO that supports migrant workers in Singapore and writing. For the last 5 years I have worked very closely with migrant domestic workers, documenting their stories.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
This summer my debut novel ‘A Yellow House’ was published which is infinitely exciting! The book is about Maya, a little girl that together with her Aunty M (a domestic worker from Indonesia) rescues an abused domestic worker in her building. They then get drawn into helping many more women in trouble, but I won’t give much more away.
More information can be found here: http://www.monsoonbooks.co.uk/books/a-yellow-house-by-karien-van-ditzhuijze/
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I started writing during my first maternity leave ten years ago. My eldest son was a good baby that slept a lot thankfully. While he was napping I wrote a children’s book about my childhood in Borneo; I really wanted to document all the adventures I had there for my children. Living in Asia and the Middle East we always had domestic workers in the house. They left their own children behind to come and look after us, which raised many questions I never asked as a child. So when I moved to Singapore with my own children I knew I wanted to write about these women.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I think you always need to take yourself serious as a writer, even when you are unpublished or just starting out. If you don’t, who else will?
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
My first adult novel, A Yellow House, is inspired by the women I met though my charity work in Singapore. These women are all domestic workers from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar. It is an immensely courageous and risky thing to do. These women often encounter difficult situations and I wanted to give them a voice.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Aunty M, an important domestic worker character in my book, left a daughter behind in Indonesia. That daughter wants a solid, stone house like one of her friends has that is painted yellow. Many domestic workers go abroad to support their children, their education and daily needs. Often the first thing they do with their hard earned money is build a house for the whole family to live. The sad thing is that they can’t enjoy it themselves as they are away working. In the book the ‘yellow house’ is a metaphor for what mothers want to pass on to their daughters.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
I like to keep my writing simple, as the subjects I broach are difficult enough and need little embellishing. Even though I write in English I think some of my first language, Dutch, might shine through. The Dutch usually have quite a tone down laid back style compared with the flourishing language you see in some nationalities. Writing about a sensitive subject like domestic worker abuse Asia as a European can be challenging. You don’t want to be seen as judgemental. This is why I selected a young girl as a protagonist. She is open-minded and naïve. I like to leave drawing conclusions up to the readers.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
All the examples of domestic workers ill-treatment I bring up in A Yellow House are based on real life situations I encountered trough my work with domestic workers in Singapore. My protagonist Maya struggles with her cultural identity, which is something I can personally relate to having lived in so many countries, although thankfully I never encountered terrible bullying like she does. Maya’s mother is in some aspects very different from me, she is a high powered career woman in finance. Yet many of her problems are ones I can relate to: losing your temper with young children, the difficulties of balancing work and family life.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
Absolutely! I love adding local colour and flavour to my books. To bring Singapore to life and get the readers to love the city like I do I added a lot of local favourite spots. Also local food and culture play an important role, as heritage is important in developing characters. The other important country in the book is Indonesia, some of that is also based on places I personally visited.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
When I visited Indonesia and the village of my own domestic worker, I fell in love with her house that she bought after working in Singapore for several years. Her gorgeous house was painted a warm ochre yellow. I sent a photo of it to my publisher who passed it on to the designers. I love the result!
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
There are many! To start with of course I want to make people think about the way migrant domestic workers get treated in Singapore and whether there is perhaps some room for improvement there. I don’t spell out that message but there is a lot of food for thought. Also, I wanted to show how different kinds of women struggle with balancing their own needs with that of their families. There isn’t really one right way to be a mother and it is ok to find it hard.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
Such a difficult question! I read a lot, and so fast I often forget what I read soon. Lately I have been reading a lot of Asian and Singaporean literature and there is so much talent out here that people in Europe haven’t even heard about. It is very refreshing to get a different perspective sometimes. Check our Amanda Lee Koe, Christine Suchen Lim, or Jeremy Tiang. And Malaysian writer Tash Aw.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
For me, my book club has been a crucial support. It is a lovely group of women, several of then writers and editors themselves. From inspiring me to write to proofreading and moral support, finally even introducing me to my publisher – they have been there every step of the way.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Career is a big word – it is still very hard to make money being a writer. But getting a publishing deal is an important first step so yes, I definitely do. I’m hard at work on my next novel, writing is very addictive and the more people tell me they like my work, the more I want to write.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
There are always minor details, but nothing significant.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
So much, where do I start! I had written a lot before, but never a full novel. After I finished my fist draft several people said they liked it, but the feedback was also crushing. I had little idea about narrative drive, creating a character arc, tension. I had to look all that up and rewrite the whole book. Thankfully I had some great people believing in me and my book which gave me the motivation to carry on.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
That is hard to say, as my first lead character is a ten-year-old mixed race girl and the second one an older Indonesian woman … But if we can get that hot guy from Crazy Rich Asians in a supporting role I’m very happy!
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
Take yourself serious, and also accept that writing fiction is a skill you need to learn. You need to make the miles! Get good proofreaders and swallow their feedback, even if it is hard to handle.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Enjoy reading! Ignore the message, the morals, just read for pleasure. Anything else will follow….
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I typically read several books at the same time. One of them is ‘Island of Demons’ by Nigel Barley (I am going to Bali for the weekend – one of the perks of living in Singapore!). The other is ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Not really, I would likely have been a picture book? Maybe a Dutch Classic like Nijntje (Miffy in English) or Jip en Janneke? My parents love books too and they read to us a lot. I had several different favourite books growing up, being your classic bookworm girl. My favourite authors were Dianne Wynne Jones, Astrid Lindgren and Paul Biegel.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
My children. In equal measure from fun or despair.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
I’d love to meet Maria Herthog, better known as either Bertha or Nadra. She was a little Dutch girl that got separated form her parents during WWII in Indonesia. In 1950 there was a court case in Singapore between her biological parents in the Netherlands and her Malay foster mother. This case resulted in the biggest racial riots in Singapore ever. The story is relevant to the new novel I’m working on and so much is written about her that is contradictory that we will never know the full story. If that even exists, as I strongly believe there is more than one truth to it. Unfortunately she had a very miserable life and passed away late last century.
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
Well, as mentioned before, reading! And traveling, nature, hiking, eating out at Asia’s great hawkers.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
Occasionally my husband and I like doing some Netflix binging but it can be hard to find something we both like as our tastes are so different. Recent favourites are ‘The Affair’ and ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’.
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
I love, love, love Asian food! Can’t imagine moving away from here yet as I’d miss the food too much, Asian food in Europe is nowhere near as good. And my favourite colour: yellow, of course!
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
Gardening, keeping animals, campaign for sustainability and human rights.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
A head stone is too formal for me. I’d rather be cremated and have my ashes spread over some beautiful nature. My books will be my legacy.
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
Yes, it’s: www.bedu-mama.com
I blog here about expat life in Singapore, traveling, food and of course updates about my book!
You can also follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KarienvanDitzhuijzenAuthor/
Or Instagram @karienvd