H.Y. (“Hsin-Yi”) Hanna is an award-winning mystery writer and the author of the bestselling Oxford Tearoom Mysteries. After graduating from Oxford University, Hsin-Yi tried her hand at a variety of jobs, before returning to her first love: writing. She worked as a freelance journalist for several years, with articles and short stories published in the UK, Australia and NZ, and has won awards for her novels, poetry, short stories and journalism.
A globe-trotter all her life, Hsin-Yi has lived in a variety of cultures, from London to Dubai, Auckland to New Jersey, but is now happily settled in Perth, Western Australia, with her husband and a rescue kitty named Muesli. You can learn more about her and her books (and the real-life Honey and Muesli who inspired the characters in the stories) at: www.hyhanna.com
Read below for a book giveaway from Hsin-Yi!
How did you get involved in writing fiction, and how did you first get published?
Well, this probably sounds really cliched but I’ve always been writing stories – probably from when I first learned to write. I was that really annoying girl in school who got excited when the teacher gave us an English essay for homework and I always turned in double the number of pages they asked for, because I always had more story to tell – my classmates probably hated me – haha!
I think I started several novels in a half-hearted fashion in my teens and this continued into my twenties, but I never took it very seriously because it seemed a bitarrogant and self-delusional to think that you could be “an author.” 😀 The whole idea of earning a living being a creative seemed too incredible to even dare believe in. Especially coming from an Asian background – it’s drilled into you that the only respectable jobs are things like being a doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc., definitely nothing creative!
Having said that, I did submit my very first finished novel and got signed on very quickly by a literary agent when I was in my late twenties – and I got very close to a book deal with a big UK publisher but when that didn’t work out, I sort of lost faith and gave up, and decided to focus on other things in my life. I think mainly because I still didn’t really believe that being an author was possible as a career.
Then, as I was approaching my 40th birthday, I had one of those mid-life crisis moments, I guess, where I realised that I wasn’t getting any younger and if I didn’t try to follow my dream now, I might never get a chance again. I suppose it was echoed in what Gemma, the heroine of my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries, went through when she decided to give up her corporate career and return to Oxford to open a tearoom (except that she gets her act together a decade earlier than I did – haha!). And around the same time, the whole independent publishing revolution was starting, so when I decided to get back into writing again, I decided not to bother with waiting for publishers this time round – it was possible now to reach readers directly, all by yourself!
The first thing I published was actually a children’s mystery series, and then I dabbled in a few other genres, I think partly because I didn’t have the confidence to write what I really loved (mysteries) – you know, you’re scared because you don’t think you’re good enough – and then when I finally did, I was a bit shocked at how well the series took off right from the start. That was my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries and today, I still feel awed and humbled at how popular it is and at all the amazing fanmail that I get from readers.
You have lived in numerous places. Tell us about a few of them. Where did you most enjoy and what did you find the most challenging?
Well, the idea of living in lots of different countries is very glamorous, but the reality can be pretty tough. I mean, you get used to the logistics of it – my family moved around a lot as I was growing up, so I was used to adapting to new places, cultures, customs constantly – at one stage, I was enrolling in a different school in a different country every year, for four years running. So I got very good at making new friends, fitting in, interacting with people from all walks of life. And then after I got married, my husband and I also moved countries quite a few times (including a big emigration to the other side of the world!) But it can wear you down a bit too – you barely just settle down and learn which supermarket you like to shop at and start to make some friends. . . and then it’s time to start packing and move again.
I think the thing I find hardest is not feeling like you have “roots” anywhere. I mean, I know where I’m born – but I don’t know if I feel very “Taiwanese” since I’ve hardly lived there – I spent so much of my formative years in different countries: UK, US, UAE – and then a lot of my adult life “Down Under” in Australia & NZ. . . it makes you a bit of a mixed-up person! (And you should hear my accent – haha!)
I always really envy those people who grew up and stayed in one town and still have their childhood friends around them. My best friends are scattered around the world, and I never get to have those “girls’ night out with my best mates” kind of thing – I’m lucky if I see them once every 5 years.
My favourite country? I think it would have to be New Zealand. I have a love affair with that place. It really is like Middle Earth in the LOTR movies – it is spectacularly beautiful and so “wild and untouched” still. I loved the eight years that we lived there and was very sorry to leave.
You set your Oxford Tea Room series in the city where you attended university. We have this image of Oxford as stepping back into the medieval realm. What is it really like?
It really is like stepping back into history – haha. 😀 Not quite medieval (although a lot of the college buildings date from medieval times) – but definitely a place that feels a bit like it exists in a bubble. A very beautiful bubble!
It’s not just the architecture, but the whole city has this strong sense of history and also because (if you live there as opposed to just visit) – there are still so many quaint rituals and customs from hundreds of years ago, which are observed. So it is like having a foot in another world. . . especially if you’re part of the university itself. Maybe less so if you’re just “town” rather than “gown” (you know about the famous “town vs gown” thing in Oxford?) – so maybe if you’re just working in a clothing store in Oxford, then you might not feel it as much. . . but if you’re studying there, living in the colleges or working in some way with the university, you sort of get swallowed into the world of Oxford University academia and it’s a very unique world.
Oxford is a very modern city too, of course – don’t get me wrong. It’s a thriving commercial hub – it’s not like one of those tourist destinations that only exist for people to take photos. There is an industrial side to Oxford, aside from the university – but it’s almost as if there are 2 parallel universes that exist over the same place: the everyday Oxford and the academic Oxford – and together, they form a sort of magical world with many layers, and if you’re lucky, you get to see all those different layers.
You studied biological sciences (B.A. and M.A.) and cultural anthropology (Masterof Studies). How did you make the jump from the sciences and social sciences to writing fiction?
Hah! Well, I really wanted to study English Literature, but the attitudes that were around me at the time when I was in school was that “science” was superior over “arts,” and therefore anyone with half a brain would be doing a science. In fact, in my school, I had no choice in the later years of high school – I couldn’t do a lot of the “arts” subjects that I wanted to do, like Philosophy and History and Literature – I had to do Physics and Chemistry and Biology, because that was what was expected if you were to be an “A-student” and get into a top university. So I guess (like Gemma again!), I was too young to stand up for myself, and I just bowed to expectations. I knew I had to do a science degree, and I picked Biology because I love animals and it was the one that was closest (shh! Don’t tell my headmistress!!). I’m not sorry I did it – I think it’s good to have scientific training in your background – it makes you think differently, analytically, understand things like correlation vs causation, etc., but if I could have my time again, I would have loved to just study literature from the beginning.
As for getting into writing fiction, I explained that in the first question. It was more like it was a part of me that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t make the conscious leap to it. . . at least, not until much later in life.
Did your degree in anthropology give you insight into anything useful for your books?
Well, I don’t draw on it consciously, but it probably does help when I’m creating characters or thinking of motives for characters’ behaviour. Social and cultural anthropology are fascinating subjects, and I guess it does help if you have some insights into how human societies and cultures grow and function.
I’m interested in how authors go about naming their characters. How do you decide what to name those in your books?
Oh, this will probably disappoint you! It’s quite mundane really. I tend to think of certain names conveying a certain image (e.g. what kind of woman do you picture when you hear the name “Kylie” vs “Edna”?) – and so I focus on a style of name first. If it’s an old lady, I’ll pick an old-fashioned name, like Edith or Glenys, and if it’s a gum-chewing teenager, then I might choose something like Taylor or Jenn. It’s the same for surnames. You can make a character sound stuffy or snooty or cooler, even slightly dangerous just by the surname you pick, because readers react unconsciously to that when they’re first introduced to the character.
As you probably know, my books tend to be very international with characters from different ethnicities and backgrounds – so that goes into it too. For example, I try to make sure my German characters have genuine German names that locals would use. The Internet is very useful for that – aside from the baby name sites, I check the census data for particular countries, to make sure I’m choosing a surname or name that is really widely used in that country.
I do have one other rule – I try to make sure that my characters’ names start with different letters as much as possible, as I think it can be confusing for readers if too many characters have names starting with the same letter. So sometimes, I will change a name at the last minute, in order to fit in with that. For example, in the most recent release, Apple Strudel Alibi (Oxford Tearoom Mysteries #8), the hotel owner was originally called Marie – but there were also Mabel, Moritz, Muesli and Mei-Mei in that story. . . and in one scene, 4 of those characters were together, and I just felt like the names were too confusing. . . so I changed Marie to Sofia at the last moment.
Tell us about your writing process. How do you develop your books?
I usually start with a “what if. . .” premise, and for the Oxford Tearoom books, that’s often linked to a particular custom or tradition in Oxford. For example, in Muffins and Mourning Tea (Book 5), I started with the tradition for students to jump off Magdalen Bridge on May Day morning, and I wondered what would happen if one of the students that “jumped” was actually murdered and I could see this whole scene playing out in my mind where the crowd is cheering and then they fall silent as they see his body floating in the water below. . . I actually wrote that first scene before I even figured out the rest of the story, as it came to me so strongly.
After that, I usually work backwards from the end of the book to the front, to figure out the murder plot. I work out who the real murderer is and how he/she did it and why – and then I work out other possible suspects and their means and motives – and how those can be red herrings to lead the reader astray. Once I have the main “players” in the story down, I try to plot it in a linear fashion, with a timeline showing each scene as it happens. I try very hard to make it a good puzzle mystery, as those are the kinds I like to read.
I usually also have one or more subplots running parallel to the main mystery plot, which is part of the series arc and is more about the personal life of the heroine, such as whether she can get her new business off the ground, whether she’s going to choose the family-approved, nice-guy doctor or the sexy brooding CID detective, whether she’s going to find anywhere to rent, whether she can replace her chef, whether she can survive her mother’s crazy shopping habits. . . ! I also like to have smaller subplots which involve other characters – and if I can, tie them all into the main mystery plot.
I usually also have a “theme” and some message somewhere in the story. It’s usually very subtle, and I don’t know if the readers always notice, but I do it for myself, really. As an author, that is what makes a story interesting for me to write. Otherwise it would just be a bunch of scenes strung together. For me to feel excited about writing it, telling the story, I have to be “saying something.” There has to be a message I feel strongly about embedded somewhere in the story.
The H.Y. in your name stands for Hsin-Yi, a Chinese name. You are the first Chinese person I have encountered who publishes cozy mysteries in the U.S. For that matter, not many Chinese Americans publish in general. Do you have any ideas why more Chinese don’t write? Do you use your initials out of concern that your Chinese name may turn some people off or just that it’s hard for Americans to pronounce?
Haha! The main reason I decided to use initials was because I thought nobody would be able to remember or spell or say my first name. When you’re a new author, it’s important to try and make it easy for readers to recommend you to others, I think, and I could see people saying “Er. . . it’s by that author with the name I can’t say or spell. . . .”
And yes, maybe I was also hoping to avoid any xenophobia from readers – (although you’d like to think/hope that people wouldn’t reject a book just because the author is from a non-white Western background!)
As for your other question, I don’t really know – other than to say that in general, Chinese culture doesn’t have a high view of creative careers, like being an artist, writer, dancer, singer. . . You’re definitely not encouraged to pursue them. So most Asian kids grow up with the expectation that they’re going to medical school or law school or those kinds of respectable, stable careers. So I suppose it’s difficult to fight against all that social pressure. . . added to the fact that most creative careers are quite difficult to get off the ground anyway.
I know for me, even though I was lucky that my mother was actually pretty supportive – I still felt the cultural pressure to conform. One of the reasons I never took writing seriously for so long was because I felt too guilty – it was like being an irresponsible dreamer. I never liked the idea of “starving for your art” – I guess I’m too practical and realistic – and I also can’t stand the idea of being dependent on others (e.g. my partner) to support me, just so I can indulge myself. . . so I felt that I couldn’t justify being an author and writing for a living, unless I could ensure that I earned as good a living as from a “normal” corporate job. Thankfully, being an independent author makes that possible, so I’m allowing myself to live the dream. 😀
You have a paranormal cozy mystery series called Bewitched by Chocolate. What is your favorite kind of chocolate?
I like “chocolate things” better than chocolate itself – like chocolate cake, chocolate profiteroles, hot chocolate, chocolate-coated strawberries. . .
What books would you say have influenced your own life as a writer?
Ooh, too many to list! Like many authors, I was a bookworm as a child and spent most of my waking hours with my nose in a book. I’m sure every book I’ve ever read plays a part in the writer I am today.
I love mysteries, of course, and so I have a soft spot for Nancy Drew books, which introduced me to the genre. I can still vividly remember standing in the school library as a nine-year old, telling the librarian that I liked to read mysteries and she directing me to a rack of Nancy Drew books, and the first one I borrowed was The Clue in the Leaning Chimney – to this day, I still get a thrill of excitement when I see the cover. By the way, I still have my ENTIRE Nancy Drew collection – I collected every single volume, both the original hardbacks and the paperbacks in the 80’s.
I loved animals stories as a child – some of my favourites were The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, Bambi by Felix Salten, White Fang by Jack London, The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. . . and I loved all the Narnia chronicles. What I liked about many of the children’s books then was that they didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of life. There was death, suffering, deception, cruelty, madness – it was all presented honestly. . . none of it was hidden or sanitised, as a lot of it is nowadays – and I think that’s important for children to be exposed to the darker elements, through the “safe” medium of fiction. I think reading books like that has definitely strengthened me as a person and helped me deal with adversity in life.
Oh, and lastly, one of my all-time favourite authors is Mary Stewart. I re-read her books over and over again – to me, they are the perfect mix of romance and mystery/suspense and I LOVE her descriptions of the exotic locations. In fact, it’s my life dream to go and do “book pilgrimages” based on each of her books. I’ve done two so far: Provence (from Madam, Will You Talk?) and Vienna/Austria (from Airs Above the Ground). . . and I can’t wait to visit the other settings, like Crete and Corfu. That’s MY bucket list – to visit all the places in her books before I die! 😀
Hsin-Yi is so kindly offering a copy of one of her books, either digital or paper, to one reader. To enter the drawing, leave a comment in the comments section below. She will also make herself available to answer any reader questions in the comments.
Read my review of A Scone to Die For
Read my review of Tea with Milk and Murder
Read my review of Two Down, Bun to Go
Read my review of Til Death Do Us Tart
Read my review of Muffins and Mourning Tea
Read my review of All Butter and Shortdead.